ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

One Professor’s Discovery About Speaking Truth to Power

In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant examines the circumstances that give rise to truly original thinkers and groundbreaking ideas. Throughout Originals, the Wharton School of Business professor shares stories from the fields of business, politics and sports, and his chapter exploring the psychology of speaking truth to power – whether it be federal whistleblowers, or a middle-level employee with an innovative idea – holds several lessons for investigative journalists and the people on which they report. For this week’s podcast, ProPublica reporter David Epstein talks with Grant about takeaways from the book.

Marla Aufmuth / Getty Images for Massachusetts Conference for Women

Highlights from their conversation:

  • Lower-level employees who make new suggestions sometimes face backlash for exercising power before they have status.
    Grant: People often confuse power and status, but power is about being able to influence others. It's the position you have of authority and your resources, whereas status is about whether other people respect you. Do they admire you? Do they like you? Do they look up to you? You see a really strong backlash when people try to assert their authority when they haven't yet earned respect.

  • Whistleblowers often want to try internal channels first, but they feel unsafe.
    Grant: We need much better internal channels that make it safe for people to blow the whistle. One of the most important steps that you can take is to model openness to that kind of information, and I think that means whistleblowers sometimes need to be called out and recognized for having the courage to speak even if they end up being wrong. There is a lot of research suggesting that people believe that it’s unsafe to blow the whistle even when they’ve never seen anyone punished for it, and so you have to go out of your way as a leader or a manger to communicate.

  • Pushing for change from within a system can be more effective.
    Grant: This is a tightrope walk. If you refuse to conform at all and you don’t buy into the system, it’s really hard to get taken seriously. … On the other hand, if you adapt too much to the world, then you never change it. I think that the easiest way to do this is to take a page out of the Carmen Medina [a CIA analyst profiled in Originals] book and say “I’ve got a balance of risk portfolio. Everything that I’m going to do that involves going against the system, I need to be doing something that’s also for it.”

  • Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read Epstein's Devils, Deals and the DEA.

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