Permission to Speak Freely, Sir? Better Think Twice Before You Do.

What they don't tell you about the veteran's (mis)adventures in the civilian world.

Strong leaders encourage dissenting points of view and candid feedback. But don’t assume your boss desires either. Give an honest point of view, and you could invite some rather unpleasant, unintended consequences.




“Before we get into this, let me just say it’s clear some of you don’t want to be here. And when we’re finished, some of you probably won’t be.”


Lauren, our boss, was in rare form. She’d just received the group’s Employee Opinion Survey results, and she was not pleased. The results placed our group in the bottom quartile of the entire department. That reflected poorly on Lauren. My coworkers and I sat uncomfortably around the conference room table and shot the same, What-The-Hell-Did-She-Just-Say? glances at each other. As a leader, we held very low expectations of Lauren. But to that point, she hadn’t made direct threats to group members’ continued employment. Could a person be fired for providing honest feedback?


He certainly wasn’t supposed to be. Through its annual Employee Opinion Survey, the company sought anonymous feedback on its culture, leaders, and public image. Employees were encouraged to answer the 50 or so questions as forthrightly as possible, without any fear of retribution. A typical question would ask an employee to rate the extent to which he or she agreed with the statement, “I am valued by my supervisor.” Or, “My work gives me a feeling of personal accomplishment.” The survey results were factored into managers’ annual performance reviews and were supposed to catalyze positive changes to energize the company’s culture. More importantly, the surveys measured Employee Engagement, the Holy Grail of all organizational metrics, which gauged employees’ intrinsic motivation and the enthusiasm with which they approached their work. Any HR Director worth his or her salt could quote to ten decimal places his or her company’s Employee Engagement score.


Lauren’s comments suggested she grasped neither the spirit nor the intent of the survey. It was intended to focus a manager on opportunities to make the organization a more productive and engaging place to work. Sitting at the table, listening to her rant, I got the very clear impression things were not about to get better as a result of this survey. They were about to get worse.


This was an entirely new and unpleasant experience. I’d had the good fortune to be raised by strong Navy leaders. When asked my opinion, I gave it honestly, thoughtfully, and tactfully. It was how I demonstrated loyalty to both the boss and the organization. Raised accordingly, I answered all questions on the Employee Opinion Survey completely candidly. I had been continually frustrated with Lauren’s poor leadership and the manner in which she’d rejected all attempts on my part to address my concerns directly with her. My answers clearly reflected these frustrations. Likewise, given the manner in which the organization held Lauren up as a model leader, my opinion of her extended to that of the broader company.


The problem with such honesty was twofold. First, there were only four of us in my group. If any one of us gave bad enough answers, he or she would drag the entire group’s scores down. Second, if the collective results were too negative, they would trigger a Corrective Action Plan. Such a plan entailed hours and hours of remedial group-hugging and various lectures from corporate change management experts on how to improve group culture. Without fail, these lectures included the most absurd role-playing exercises one could endure while barely keeping his dignity, and lunch, intact. My civilian colleagues already knew all this. I did not. Clearly, it was I who’d submarined our group’s survey results.


Lauren continued, “So what we’re going to do now is go around the room, and I want each of you to give me at least two things that we, as a group, can do to avoid any more of these . . . misunderstandings.”


Lauren had her laptop open and was projecting a spreadsheet onto the conference room wall. She’d arranged each survey question in a column and added adjacent columns labeled “Action” and “Owner.” So, not only would we have to suggest actions to correct Lauren’s leadership deficiencies, but we would also be responsible for their completion. As a bonus, she informed us we’d be required to report progress on our actions during bi-weekly meetings with Lauren’s boss. Effectively, the entire burden of Lauren’s poor Employee Opinion Survey results had been shifted entirely from her to us.


I never made the same mistake again. In subsequent Employee Opinion Surveys, I gave only neutral responses. There was no way in hell the company was going to get either honest feedback out of me or another opportunity to unleash the corporate change management hounds on my helpless colleagues and me. Likewise, in my personal dealings with Lauren, I kept my opinions, when asked for them, superficial, vague, and non-committal. Such was the safest course.


Despite the awkward, belligerent manner in which she’d handled the situation, Lauren emerged completely unscathed. The following year, she beamed as she reviewed her Employee Opinion Survey results with the group. They were nearly perfect.


Imagine that.




Communication in the private sector is governed by very peculiar rules of engagement. Among them:

  • It’s not a foregone conclusion your boss values candor. Be very careful as to how, when, and to whom you voice your opinion, regardless of medium. Any invitation to provide open, honest feedback should be viewed with extreme skepticism. As a default, keep your mouth shut.
  • The longer you spend with an organization, the better you should be able to judge how safe it is to share your views. As a general rule, take whatever period of time it took on active duty before you felt comfortable enough to speak up in a new role, and double it. Maybe even triple it. That’s about when you should begin to start sharing opinions with civilian colleagues. Speak out too soon and with enough conviction, and you will invariably be labeled aggressive. In your previous life, that was a compliment. In the private sector, it means you fancy yourself a Maverick, flying inverted, at close range, over an enemy MiG. In other words, it means you’re not to be taken seriously.
  • All the above goes out the window when it comes to safety. If you work in an industrial environment in which large pieces of machinery or equipment, handled improperly, could get someone killed, do not tolerate an unsafe condition. Even it’s the first minute of the first hour of your first day in a new job, speak up. Take corrective action. This is one situation in which your military experience is immediately, directly applicable.   

The author is a veteran who has had stints in various positions and industries in corporate.  His advice to transitioning veterans: Lower your expectations.