Speaking Truth To Power: How Promotion Seeking Pollutes Decision-Making

The Long March
(U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Sarah Anderson)

What can we do to counter the negative effects of ambitious promotion seeking? I offer the following:

  1. Don't look at your evaluation
  2. Speak truth to power
  3. Strive for impact, not promotion


Don't look at your evaluation

I once heard someone remark they have never looked at their evaluation. Regardless if I believe the individual or not, I thought this was something to try. The issue here is practicality. Yet, this could be a powerful way to reduce your desire for promotion. If you could keep yourself from looking at the content of your evaluation (here's hoping you are not having to write your own), then you might find you are not driven by the evaluation.

Speak truth to power

Speaking truth to power is a popular phrase among leaders. This means we follow what we say, regardless of the consequences. Coincidently, many fail at this. Instead, they follow power over truth. Why? This question has been weighing on my mind for some time. Why is it so hard to speak truth to power? Why do so many of us kiss up and kick down? Could it simply be the desire for promotion? If so, then does this desire pollute decision-making?

Gordon Tullock writes about the "economic man" as an ambitious public employee who seeks to advance his career opportunities for promotions within a bureaucracy in The Politics of Bureaucracy. Vincent Ostrom further analyzes Tullock's discussion in The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration.

Using Tullock and Ostrom's discussion (for which I recommend you read), let's examine a military example and see how ambitious promotion seeking pollutes decision-making.

We work in large bureaucratic institutions and desire promotion. And for officers, the system is setup in a way that forces promotion, or we risk being forced out. Therefore, the system promotes ambitious promotion seeking. Since promotion is a consequence of favorable recommendations from superiors through evaluations. And favorable evaluations from superiors are a consequence of receiving favorable information from subordinates. Therefore, subordinates striving for promotion will forward only favorable information. Since valuable information, which is unfavorable, is repressed, superiors will never see the entire picture. This reduces flexibility in adapting to rapidly changing conditions. Therefore, superiors compensate for this loss by tightening controls, which further leads to repression of unfavorable information.

We know valuable information is often repressed. Yet, what about the information forwarded? Is it factual or is it simply information manipulated in a way to present a narrative the boss wants to hear? If this is the case, then are we speaking truth to power? The answer is no. My advice is to stop repressing information and tell the boss exactly what he or she needs to hear, regardless of the consequences.

Strive for impact, not promotion

I am reminded of the advice offered by John Boyd – To Be or To Do. Essentially, you can either be somebody or do something. You can either be a member of the club and conform to general expectations and get promoted to be somebody. Or you can do something and be true to yourself while making an impact.

I took this advice to heart. My view of promotion in the military completely changed a few years ago. A mentor of mine questioned a superior (on what he thought was right). He was later forced into retirement (I will tell this story some day). Yet, if he would have simply stuck with, "Yes, sir… Great idea, sir…" he would still be in the military today.

If the message is to do what you are told and not question anyone to get promoted, then why get promoted? I would much rather speak truth to power and strive for impact. Here is the bottom line: If you strive for impact, and you are that damn good, then they will have no choice but to promote you. If you go this route, you don't have to jeopardize your dignity. You will upset some (typically your superiors). You will be looked at differently, but who cares. Embrace it and have a little fun speaking truth to power.

Maj. Jamie Schwandt, USAR, is a logistics officer, red team member and lean six sigma master black belt. He holds a doctorate from Kansas State University. This article represents his own personal views, which are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army.

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