“Congratulations,” White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) said to new hire Joe Quincy (Matthew Perry) in an episode of “West Wing.” “I wanted to know if you can speak truth to power.”
The characters pontificated often about this liberating notion of telling the unvarnished truth to those in authority, even at — especially at — great cost to the speaker, on that television program that followed the fictional hijinks of the folk working at that seat of ultimate modern corporeal power, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.
The idea has its roots from way back — examples range from Jesus tossing the money-changers out of the temple up to Anita Hill’s 1997 memoir about the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings.
But for most of us, speaking truth to power is a path that almost always ends with only one possible outcome. And it’s not a happy one.
Which is why something like 34 percent of working adults today told a University of Phoenix-Harris Interactive survey that they are unlikely to speak up on the job.
Add to that 15 percent responded that they are less inclined to suggest out-of-the-box ideas, and 26 percent haven’t asked for a promotion.
This is because, the survey found, more than 60 percent of workers are worried about losing their jobs.
One in five said they think about it every week.
The online survey included full-time, part-time and self-employed adults.
Those are big numbers, and as the figures above indicate, there’s a dampening effect: Most of us won’t speak up to the boss if we think something isn’t being done right, or we have a shiny new idea.
It seems we’re not going to let out a chirp for anything more substantial than the building being on fire.
Worse, the gloomy stats are higher as workers get younger, the survey says. Employees aged 18 to 44 are only slightly less anxious (63 percent) than those aged 45 to 54 (67 percent). By comparison, workers 55 and older are gosh-darned sanguine (at 51 percent).
No wonder there’s not much truth-to-power speaking going on in real life.
The other side of this, too, begs the question: How much do managers want to be approached with new ideas?
Are their staff meetings an open discussion? Or are they more akin to high school assemblies in which the principal make announcements and those in attendance are meant to sit down and keep quiet?
Look at it this way: In these competitive times, what business doesn’t want as much advantage as it can muster?
A few years ago at another newspaper, the chain’s publisher called a brainstorming meeting of the all the editors. I asked if I could bring along a couple of my reporters.
Why would I want to do that, he asked.
I replied that we had pretty some clever people and the benefit of their viewpoints could only help.
But, he countered, if I invited them, other editors also would want to include their smart workers.
To which I thought, well, yeah … .