Speaking Truth to Power

“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 examines what helps to cultivate dialogue within leadership relations and what gets in the way – see this article in Forbes Magazine which explains my interest in changing conversational habits through being more mindful.

My research with John Higgins explores findings from a three-year project into ‘speaking truth to power’ in organisations. We are currently writing a book with Financial Times Publishing on this subject, which will be published next year.

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’ stimulated people to reflect on experience from two perspectives. The first related to times where the individual had made a choice to speak up to others they regarded as more powerful, or had remained silent. The second related to times when individuals, recognizing they may be perceived as being more powerful in the eye and experience of others, had attempted to enable others to speak up to them, or had inadvertently or purposefully acted to keep others silent

Across both of these perspectives we identified five intertwined issues, which are all navigated together when speaking up (or staying silent). We call this the TRUTH framework. 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 three Harvard Business Review articles:

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:

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.