Follow @jack_ganssle

Speaking Truth to Power

Summary: The truth can be unpleasant or even job-threatening. What is one to do?

If you've attended my seminar you know I believe in absolute honesty in an engineering environment. Difficult truths become much harder if left unspoken, and it's impossible to hide from reality. An example is scheduling: in fact, the IEEE code of ethics says, among other things, that we promise to be accurate in our estimates. Even though the boss might not want to face the truth.

Les Chambers wrote a fascinating account of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (http://www.systemsengineeringblog.com/deus_ex_machina/) which places at least some of the blame on one manager who was unwilling to step in and accept the unpleasant truths.

Sound familiar? Do you remember Roger Boisjoly?

Mr. Boisjoly was the Morton-Thiokol engineer who warned that it was a bad idea to launch the space shuttle Challenger on a cold January day. He had the guts to stand up for what he believed. Management, under sharp pressure from NASA, overruled his objections and gave the approval to launch. Though vindicated, unfortunately, the company pulled him off space work and he was turned into a pariah. Doing the right thing is not always rewarded.

This was not a one-time bit of heroics; he had issued a memo the previous year highlighting the problem (http://www.webcitation.org/651nnfKDv).

Unfortunately, Mr. Boisjoly passed away in January, 2012, and an entire generation has come into its own since that awful day in 1986. Many younger engineers have never heard of him.

In his article, Les Chambers goes on to describe a situation he found himself in, where management was demanding he abandon his strongly-held position about the safety of a device. Mr. Chambers refers to "speaking truth to power," which is an old Quaker call to the bravery required when one has to say the unpleasant to powerful opponents.

To quote his article: "This was a blatant violation of everything we knew to be professional, honest and right. But how? How can you buck the momentum of a massive project proceeding inexorably to delivery. How can you do what you know is right in the face of massive cost/time pressure and political will? How can one be a righteous person in a unjust world?"

He goes on to cite Albert Hirschman, an MIT "social scientist" who gives three options to people finding themselves in these sorts of uncomfortable positions (again, quoting the article):

1. Loyalty. Remain a loyal "team player" (shut up and do what you're told) 2. Voice. Try to change the policy (speak truth to power) 3. Exit. Tender a principled resignation (quit).

The article explores each of these options in some detail. In engineering we're sometimes called on to make ethical decisions, and I highly recommend Mr. Chambers' article to help refine your thinking when caught in such a position.

Published March 15, 2012