Why It Is Hard to Speak Truth to Power

Almost all powerful people say that they want their staff to give them fearless, honest advice.  But we all know that this is nonsense, and it seldom happens. Why is this?

Tim Harford summarises the problem rather nicely in his book Adapt:

There is a limit to how much honest feedback most leaders really want to hear; and, because we know this, most of us sugar-coat our opinions whenever we speak to a powerful person. In a deep hierarchy, that process is repeated many times, until the truth is utterly concealed inside a thick layer of sweet-talk. There is some evidence that the more ambitious a person is, the more he will choose to be a yes-man - and with good reason because yes-men tend to be rewarded.

Even when leaders and managers genuinely want honest feedback, they may not receive it. At every stage in a plan, junior managers or petty bureaucrats must tell their superiors what resources they need and what they propose to do with them. There are a number of plausible lies they might choose to tell, including over-promising in the hope of winning influence as go-getters, or stressing the impossibility of a task and the vast resources needed to deliver success, in the hope of providing a pleasant surprise. Actually telling the unvarnished truth is unlikely to be the best strategy in a bureaucratic hierarchy. Even if someone does tell the truth, how is the senior decision-maker to separate the honest opinion from some cynical protestation?

The resulting filtering can have devastating effects in a steep hierarchy: What starts out as bad news becomes happier and happier as it travels up the ranks -- because after each boss hears the news from his or her subordinates, he or she makes it sound a bit less bad before passing it up the chain. 

Building on this analysis, we are all likely, of course, to be upset by, or resent, inconvenient or unwelcome advice, especially if it carries the implication that we are ill-informed, or lack good judgement. And our advisors won't want to deal with the negative emotions that unwelcome advice provokes.  We all therefore take more care when delivering such advice, and often ‘aim off’ to some extent, and/or sugar coat our advice with positive feedback before delivering the less welcome stuff.

There is also a "shoot the messenger" problem. Bearers of bad news, even when they aren't responsible for it in any sense, tend to be blamed and to have negative feelings directed toward them. We are accordingly likely to soften the message – or maybe not deliver it at all – if we fear the reaction of the recipient, and we are much more likely to fear their reaction if they are powerful and so in a position to harm us.  Politicians – for reasons which I explore below – are particularly likely to resent advice which they regard as obstructive or negative.  Some will even try to surround themselves with courtiers and other yes-men (and women) to the great detriment of good government – which is why civil servants are entreated to resist this and insist on ‘speaking truth to power’. 

It is sometimes the case that there isn't time, or there isn't a convenient opportunity, to frame the message in an effective way. And the wider the power gap, the more difficult it can be to communicate even urgent concerns. I record elsewhere the distress of junior doctor Rachel Clarke when she failed to challenge the appalling behaviour of one senior consultant doctor.

Then, in the UK at least, it is very hard to get anyone to be truly open about how they really feel.  Australian-born rugby coach complained in 2019 about "that classic English thing of smiling and nodding and seeming agreeable at the time, but then going off to piss and moan about it in private ... [and] to have harsh words with a player in front of team mates would upset the other players".  So both decision-makers and their advisers are unlikely to voice their honest concerns.

Last - but certainly not least - the sheer power of senior executives and politicians - and often their authoritarian personalities - predispose them to reject much sensible and well-meant advice.  This subject is discussed on this web page: Why Some Bosses Dislike Challenge .

Does the Private Sector Do Any Better?

The private and public sectors face similar issues.  IT project failures are common in the private sector, as they are in government, though much less publicised, for obvious reasons.  And private sector managers face just as intense pressures - from their Boards - to deliver quickly and to a tight budget. Margaret Hefernan (in her book Wilful Blindness) notes that a high proportion of executives had, at least some of the time, felt unable to raise an issue or concern with their boss, and that recruits into senior positions are pre-selected so as to assimilate into an organisation’s culture and not likely to ‘rock the boat’.  This is no doubt especially true in civil service and other establishment roles.

One difference, I think, is that private sector senior managers are usually more realistic than Ministers, and much less subject to the political career and media pressures summarised later in this paper.

A second difference is that a private sector manager can usually get out from under an unreasonable boss and find a similar job in another company.  But civil servants do not have a choice of an alternative career, unless they are, say, IT professionals.  So key policy advisers can get locked into acting more like courtiers than professional advisers, and give up on 'speaking truth to power' - with foreseeable and depressing results.

Third. it is also often the case that Permanent Secretaries nowadays feel under great pressure to deliver their own department's policies and programmes, and not those of the government as a whole.  They are often, for instance, reluctant to replace or move staff whom they, or their Minister, think able to deliver policies effectively. There are similar tensions in the private sector but corporate Boards and the CEO do determine key corporate strategies and are responsible for seeing their implementation company-wide.  In contrast, in government, there is a very limited role for individual Ministers to determine key strategies once the manifesto has been published, and no responsibility for delivering policies and programmes other than those of their own department.

A fourth difference may be that newly appointed Ministers cannot easily change their senior advisers, even if they suspect them of being out-of-touch with social and political priorities, over-sympathetic to the views of political opponents, naturally opposed to change, and so on.  Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries famously got off to a bad start with Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and failed to establish an effective working relationship with Gordon Brown in either the Treasury or No.10. All three seem to have preferred to work with those who did not ‘push back’ too hard – ‘courtiers’ even. Follow this link to read a discussion of how 'speaking truth' may have become more difficult in recent years. (Opens in Understanding the Civil Service website.)

In contrast, it is accepted that newly appointed private sector CEOs etc. will most likely appoint previous colleagues to key positions in their organisations.  It doesn't always happen, of course, but they can do it more easily than can a new Minister - or indeed a new Permanent Secretary.  The result should be that they are working with people that they know and trust, and who may therefore feel free to speak more freely.  But it can of course also lead to Group Think and other vices.

Some argue that recent new government administrations have been particularly vulnerable to error as a result of suspicious ministers inheriting senior officials who are over anxious to please.  Indeed, it is hard to read Anthony King’s The Blunders of our Governments or Richard Bacon and Christopher Hope’s Conundrum – Why Every Government Gets Things Wrong - let alone the Chilcot Report - without wondering whether very senior officials could not have done more to persuade their political masters and mistresses to take more sensible decisions. If not, then what were we employing them for?


Some examples of the damage done by failure to speak truth are here.

Queen Elizabeth 1st offers a good example of how powerful people do not always follow through on their promise to reward truthful advisers.  She famously instructed William Cecil as follows:   "This judgment I have of you: that you will not be corrupted with any manner of gift, and that you will be faithful to the state, and that, without respect to my private will, you will give me that council that you think best."  Historians record, however, that - as she got older and more confident in her own opinions - she often became very angry with courtiers who argued with her.  Alison Weir says that:  'She did not feel bound to take her councillors' advice, and frequently shouted at them or banned them temporarily from court if they disagreed with her. Many were prepared to risk this minor punishment for the sake of putting their views across.'

One wonders why anyone chooses to serve certain leaders.  Hinting at the execution of several North Korean officials in 2019, a newspaper commented that:

"Those who pretend to serve the leader to his face but have different goals, and dream different dreams behind his back, those who have thrown away their loyalty and ethics, those who are anti-party, anti-revolution, cannot escape a heavy judgment."

It can be especially difficult to speak truth to power when there are several other factors combining to create a policy disaster.  James Thomson's famous analysis of the disaster that was the Vietnam War makes both entertaining and sobering reading:-  How Could Vietnam Happen?:  An Autopsy.

And it is of course very difficult, verging on impossible, immediately to correct mistakes made by powerful people in public gatherings.  The faces - and even the subsequent pronouncements of - senior US medics were wonderful to behold when President Trump announced that injecting disinfectant might be a great way to kill the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Follow this link for analyses of other government blunders.


Martin Stanley

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