Speak Up



“I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job” Sam Goldwyn (American film producer)

Enabling people to speak up is now an imperative to reduce the risk of wrong-doing as well as access vital knowledge and ideas from employees.

Leaders are encouraged to say their doors are always open, to host Friday-pizza-with-the-boss sessions and whistleblowing hotlines are set up, yet such organisational interventions are often too simplistic to make any sustainable change to culture.

Simply asking people to ‘speak up’ and encouraging leaders to ‘engage in conversation’ without thoroughly appreciating the impact that power differences - and prevailing social and cultural norms - have on what can be spoken, and what is heard, is naïve at best. At worst it leads to organisational cynicism, as an issue of critical practical importance becomes trivialised into ritualised listening, consultation and training exercises.

“The world may admire the truth-tellers, but few will want to employ them.” Charles Handy

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My research with John Higgins, published in our new book Speak Up and in our research reports ‘Being Silenced and Silencing Others (2017) and Speaking Truth to Power at Work (2019), explores findings from a five-year project into ‘speaking truth to power’ in organisations.

We discovered, through our interviews, organisational studies, workshops with groups of senior executives and our comprehensive research into our own experiences, that ‘speaking truth to power’ is relational. Although the vast amount of management writing and leadership development efforts focus on individual bravery and courage in speaking up (which is important), relatively little effort is focused on improving the way we listen up and skilfully invite others to speak. We need to focus on both. I am working with organisations and teams to improve both through developing the skills in speaking up andthrough leaders, recognizing they may be perceived as being more powerful in the eye and experience of others, attempting to enable others to speak up to them and spotting where they have (often inadvertently) acted to keep others silent.

We have identified five intertwined issues, which are all navigated together when speaking up and listening up. We call this the TRUTH framework and this is examined in detail in our book, Speak Up. The first two, ‘Trust’ in the value of our own (or the other’s) opinion and ‘Risk’, the awareness of the consequences of speaking up (or being spoken up to), are put first as they decide, as one research participant noted: “Am I going to move or not move?”  The latter three, ‘Understanding’, ‘Titles’ and ‘How-to’ relate to the skill of understanding the political environment, assessing how the social titles and labels (such as gender, age, job title, race) affect speaking and listening up, and then having the capacity to judge how to say things, or invite things to be said in the moment.

The ways in which power silences and the ways in which we might help others to speak up is the topic of my recent TEDx talk. It is also the focus of four Harvard Business Review articles:

Managers you’re more intimidating than you think

Do you Have Advantage Blindness?

The Problem With Saying My Door Is Always Open 

5 Questions To Ask Before You Call Out Someone More Powerful

You can view my webinar on sexual harassment, seen through the lens of our truth to power research here:

Truth to Power Videos:

1. Speaking Truth to Power - Why speaking up and listening up matters in the workplace

 2. Speaking Truth to Power - Why do we speak up or stay silent: Introducing the TRUTH framework  

 3. Speaking Truth to Power- How do we listen effectively to others

 4. Speaking Truth to Power - Speak Up and Listen Up: Trusting your and others’ opinions

 5. Speaking Truth to Power - Speak Up and Listen Up: Knowing the risks

 6. Speaking Truth to Power - Speak Up and Listen Up: Understanding power and politics

 7. Speaking Truth to Power - Speak Up and Listen Up: Why titles matter

 8. Speaking Truth to Power - How to Speak Up and Listen Up

I speak regularly on this subject at conferences and run workshops and longer leadership development programmes to improve the way people speak up and listen up inside organisational systems. If you are interested in finding out more, please do contact me here and see my publications listed in the MEDIA tab.