New Research Shows How ‘Truth’ Really Works In Organizations

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"I don't want yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job."

Most leaders are blind to the fact that people cannot speak up to them, and as a result are missing out on vital intelligence which could affect their company’s success or even survival.

This is one of the key findings from a new research report, ‘Being Silenced and Silencing Others: Developing the capacity to speak truth to power’, published today by Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School.

The research suggests that people at the top of organisations often have an inflated idea of how easy it is for others to speak honestly to them.  They naively assume that well-meaning initiatives, such as leadership lunches, or phrases like ‘my door is always open’, will encourage employees to tell them what they need to know.

What leaders often fail to recognise, however, is that truth and power are inextricably intertwined and that no matter how approachable they try to be, employees will always monitor what they say and only disclose what they think is ‘safe’ or politically acceptable.  Encouraging people to speak up is a complex balancing act, which requires leaders to have a sophisticated understanding of the impact power differences have on what can be spoken and what is heard.

“Silence is a dangerous thing for any organisation and any leader,” says report co-author Megan Reitz.  “If people cannot speak up to you then you will be unaware of issues which could bring your team, your targets, even your organisation to its knees.  The emissions scandal at VW and revelations of doping at the IAAF are prime examples of employees knowing what was happening, but choosing not to speak up because they felt the personal risk was too high. 

“Equally, if your employees are full of ideas about how you can do a better job for the customer, or get a better deal from a supplier, you need to know.  If you don’t tap into this collective intelligence inside your organisation, your competitor will.”

The research, which was conducted over two years and involved interviews with 60 senior executives as well as in-depth case studies, looks specifically at what either facilitates or gets in the way of people speaking up in organisations.

It identifies five key issues which influence whether people speak up or stay silent – personal conviction, risk awareness, political awareness, social awareness and judgement.  It also provides organisations with a diagnostic tool they can use to assess their ‘truth to power’ culture and offers recommendations for leaders who want to improve their ability to have effective dialogue with their people.

The research is particularly relevant at a time when the debate about our ‘post truth’ society is raging.  “When dominant leaders begin to see themselves as unquestionably right – and when those around them feel they can only say what is safe to say – then we have a perfect storm in which leaders who are disconnected from the day-to-day can persuade others that their perspective of the world is reality”, says Megan Reitz.

To read the full article visit Harvard Business Review.

‘Being Silenced and Silencing Others: developing the capacity to speak truth to power’’ Megan Reitz and John Higgins, March 2017, is available to download from

kim hollamby