Speaking truth to power in organisations...from fantasy to reality

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The latest news from Toshiba and its financial misreporting scandal is another piece of data that fits with a consistent drumbeat signalling that all is not well in the world of organisational truth and power.

Facilitating truthful conversation up and down the hierarchy is seen increasingly as a leadership imperative in the 21st century. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, authors Groysberg and Slind claim that the new model for leaders centres on their ability to “handle the flow of information to, from, and among their employees”. Many other management and organisational experts similarly expound the importance of dialogue and conversation but much of this writing is supremely idealistic.

Leaders are encouraged to ‘manage by walking about’ and ‘keep an open-door policy’. They are encouraged to make time to meet and speak with organisational members other than those who sit around the Board room table. But if they do these things what do they really get to hear? What gets told to the person in power? Do we really think that if a leader has good rapport and listening skills, put to use once or twice a week in various engineered forums, this will ensure they hear ‘truth’? In an organisational system of competing and often conflicting truths whose ‘truth’ gets heard? Whose ‘truth’ gets acted upon and invested in?

My research colleague, John Higgins, and I think that if leaders believe they know what is going on they are probably deluded. Over the past six years we have both researched organisational dialogue and Ashridge Business School is currently funding us to conduct a major project into speaking truth to power. Several months into this project many themes have caught our attention. Here I will introduce just three; ‘nouse’‘jeopardy’ and ‘painting the fence’.


Many senior and junior people alike, lack the basic ‘nouse’ (or social street-smartness) to say things in a way that can be heard, or truly hear things that don’t fit with what they expected to hear. Speaking truth to power according to those we have interviewed takes real skill; knowing when your boss is able to listen, knowing the importance of precise phrasing so that a contradiction is experienced as simply a supportive alternative. Knowing how to employ ‘levelling’ techniques to diminish power distance and so encourage others to speak out (choosing to dress appropriately, using language to suit the audience for example).

When, however, do such techniques stray out of ‘effective rapport and trust building’ into manipulation and the creation of false security? When does truth telling merge into game playing? And who is set to lose out in this game?


The lack of nouse is made worse by the experience of ‘jeopardy’; many people feel fearful when speaking to senior people, and senior people under-estimate the fear they can evoke. Whether people take the plunge and speak out depends in part on their assessment of the consequences. If they feel their job, their income to support their family, their social standing, their friendships are all at risk, reticence builds. A CEO who smilingly tells them not to worry because his or her door is always open is unlikely to allay their fears. Some senior leaders we have spoken to have a more blasé approach to risk; their ego is strengthened through identifying themselves as being radical and they feel that if it backfires, well, they can always find another high-paying job. Others, both senior and junior, have a less amicable relationship with risk and for them the price is simply too high. They stay quiet. 

Painting the fence

People’s perception of risk is of course fuelled by a kaleidoscope of factors which come together in the moment of an interaction. How safe one feels will not simply be an equation involving the approachability of the person in power and the confidence of the speaker. 

One senior executive I spoke to described how he was parachuted into a failing organisation where employee morale was low. He described his first visit to the headquarters and how the fence to the building was old and worn with the paint peeling off. It communicated to him, and he surmised to those working there, that the organisation was not respected, and did not respect those working for it. When he was asked at his interview for the role what his first action would be he replied ‘paint the fence’. His reasoning was that if those working in the organisation felt that they were not worth investing in, that they did not deserve attention and that their environment did not matter, then they would be unlikely to think creatively and to speak out with their ideas. Environment mattered to him. In his eyes it was one of the many systemic issues which could determine whether the employees would speak truth to him. 

Our research delves into the complexities of speaking truth in organisations in a bid to move away from blithe catch phrases and quick fixes promised by some management models. In doing so we hope to become more realistic and hence more useful to those in organisations who believe, like we do, that the quality of conversations in organisations might just be the main source of competitive advantage, and the main hope for dealing with our enormous societal challenges, in the 21st century.


kim hollamby