Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The truth can hurt!

Recently, the consequences of telling the truth as one sees it were made evident in a personnel decision of which I've become aware. A person whose name I'll not give here has had a reputation of being outspoken, including being critical of decisions made by the organization for which s/he works. This has never been a formula for rapid advancement, as I've seen several times during the course of my professional life. My colleague was passed over for a position for which s/he truly was most qualified - of course, the real reason for that decision is prejudice against her/him for being outspoken. This is not the first time this has happened to a colleague!

To put this in perspective, let me tell something of my own story. When I was in high school, I ran afoul of "management" for being a critic of the school in a public medium. For this "sin" I was called in to the office, dressed down, and tasked with writing a public apology. I wrote my apology in such a way that it was a non-apologetic apology, something no one in the school administration apparently noticed (or if they did, they decided it was sufficient, anyway). I never have had any respect for arbitrary authority figures (those in a position they believe should command respect simply because of the authority of the position itself), although I find it easy to respect those who have earned respect!

From that point on, I made a decision about my future: I wanted to get to a position where I could say freely what I thought without regard for recriminations. I realized that having a doctorate was something that, once earned, couldn't be rescinded. Being a contributing scientist put me in a position where my obligations and commitment could be directed primarily to the science, and not to any organization for which I worked. Once I graduated with my doctorate, I embarked on a career in which I believed (and still believe) that it's my duty to speak the truth as I see it. From the start, I was outspoken, even before I achieved any status on the basis of my scientific publications. My policy has been simple - if I have to choose between saying what I think and sticking to my organization's "party line" then that's a no-brainer.

During much of my professional career, I've had people who supported me precisely because I was speaking the truth as I saw it. This has included folks who believed as I did but who were fearful of the consequences if they said what I was saying. I became something of a spokesman for those in "the system" who were unable to speak for themselves without fear of negative consequences. My version of John Paul Jones' famous saying, "Damn the consequences! Full speed ahead!" had consequences, of course. But those consequences were minor, and I think the reason for the modesty of those consequences was the support of my scientific colleagues (including some of my organizational managers), who valued my work and my honest opinion.

Many of the things I believe to be true could be wrong, of course. If I'm wrong, I expect someone to challenge what I say and to show me the error of my thinking in a convincing way. What I get, for the most part, is people thinking I'm a know-it-all, or people who fail to challenge me because they lack the courage to say what they think to my face. I dispute the accusation that I think I know it all, so I challenge anyone who thinks I'm wrong to confront me directly and explain why they think I'm wrong. Then we can both gain something from the confrontation, even if neither of us change our minds about the issue in dispute. And my mind can be changed by a sufficiently convincing argument, although I'm not going to roll over and concede just because you think I'm wrong!

As for people who lack the courage to challenge me - let me simply say that I don't respect such people for taking that position. And I similarly have no respect for those who punish people I know simply for being outspoken. In fact, seeing this happen to friends of mine is more infuriating than when it happens to me! Do they think that no one will notice what's going on? Do they think that someone actually believes the lies they use to justify their actions? That's insulting!

I made up my mind long ago to live with the consequences of my outspokenness. It's the only consolation I can offer to my friends when their outspokenness comes back to haunt them in their careers. I made it one level higher on the career ladder than I ever expected to reach, so for me, the consequences were not meaningful. I'm pleased about having a reputation for being able to call things as I see them - I say what I mean, and I mean what I say. When I look into the mirror, I'm not at all sorry for having stood up for what I thought was the truth! It's the only solace I need, and I commend it to my friends for their unhappiness over the consequences for their willingness to speak the truth.