Friday, July 6, 2012

Speaking Truth to Power

Guest post by Scott Weiss:

There's a crisis of trust in this country. You can see it everywhere you look: business, politics, financial Institutions...somewhere along the way authentic communication became a thing of the past. In recent times, transparency, vulnerability, and empathy in the workplace have been lost. It’s for this reason I’ve made it my life’s mission to shine the light on authentic communication both in the workplace and elsewhere.

In researching for my book, DARE, I came across great articles about speaking truth to leaders, and the reasons leaders need their followers to challenge them.

In corporate cultures, it’s not often encouraged to challenge authority. I believe that is due to what many deem “the boss effect”, which is the higher up one goes, the less truth they hear, the more distorted their reality, and the more difficult it is for people to speak openly to them.

The Roles We Play

Leaders and followers are not personality types, but roles we all play in corporations, organizations, and in personal relationships. The distinction is that we perceive power differently in hierarchical organizations than in other types of relationships.

In business situations, employees are often concerned about their roles and the importance of their thoughts, many times worried that telling their truth could affect future promotion or retention within the organization. But, again, research shows the far more prevalent cause is fear of losing favor with the leader.

The Courage To Lead

The courage to speak truth to power is unfortunately more uncommon than most would prefer. Every now and again, a great CEO or leader will come along and we will fawn over their ability to listen to their colleagues, be innovative though leadership, and courteous and authentic in all scenarios. But for now, we face this crisis of trust and uncertainty within our leadership.

To be honest and authentic with yourself is to guarantee your success within your own goals. We live amongst cover-ups, ethics violations, and deception on all levels. The timing is critical to find the dare within you to “speak truth to power.” This is an important goal in building strength that all of us need to be our best with others, and also appropriately value ourselves.

Putting Thoughts To Action

When you decide to begin speaking the truth to the power in your world, there are several things to keep in mind. If it has been a while since the leader was confronted, it’s reasonable to expect denial. And it’s not just the leader who can be in denial—how often do we let ourselves get carried away with anger, stress, or fear. There are so many things that could go wrong, it’s important to note several things that will make the process more effective for both parties.

Frame your concerns in terms of what is at stake for the leader and company. Sometimes it is easiest to communicate based on what “we” think and what is best for “us”—it can be a powerful communication tool to frame the conversation around what your suggestion can do for the leader or for the company, specifically. In fact, in both business and personal scenarios, considering the other person first, and putting their needs in the forefront can almost always guarantee a better ear for your point of view.

You’ll also want to make sure you reconfirm your support for the leader/company during your communication. It’s always important to be self-aware, and aware of what others may be thinking or feeling. Reconfirming the reasons for the communication can help both parties see eye-to-eye. If you are speaking with your boss about company strategy, consider using phrases that reiterate the why in your suggestions, and use “us” to underscore the fact that we’re all in this together.

Work on clarity for what you want the outcome to be. Going into a conversation knowing what you hope for is half the battle. Often times, I tell myself, and coach others, to go ahead and state what you hope for up front. That removes ambiguity in the conversation about your agenda. Or as we’ve all heard before—and it’s true—just ask. All they can say is no. And in the process of the conversation, I hope you find that not only is your leader enlightened, but that you feel capable/ready/inspired to work towards confident, trustworthy, and authentic communication.

Scott Weiss is is one of the founding members of Turner Broadcasting, CEO of Speakeasy (, and author of the upcoming book DARE.


Deborah said...

Of course, challenging authority is not encouraged in many corporate cultures. Many such cultures are still imbued with territoriality (silo-ed-behavior), leaders in bubbles, and status defined as how-many-report-to-me. Encouraging the challenging of authority takes sincere, long-term commitment and walking the talk by rewarding behavior that is communicated in persistent corporate story, upheld over years, even decades.

The tension can be productive, and can enable highly productive work at all levels, but is VERY hard to establish. A few negative stories or poorly handled terminations can undo progress in a nano-second.

I'd be intrigued to read what your corporate stories of success in the realm art. Leaders who enable truth to power culture successfully as deemed by those below them, especially those in entry and midlevel roles, would be great role models for leadership development today.

Jim Taggart said...

This is well-timed, Scott, especially given the growing political divide in the U.S. (but the same in my country, Canada). I just finished reading a HBR interview with Unilever CEO Paul Polman. It's perhaps the most enlightening interview I've read in years. I see some hope with captains of industry, who get it when it comes to sustainability, the pressures on the planet and who don't hesitate to "speak truth to power" to shareholders, and who don't hesitate to tell hedge funds to take a hike. Unfortunately, politicians in our two countries seem to be caught in a time warp, pretending we're living in a "Leave It To Beaver" period.

At the micro level, employees (public and private) are too scared to speak up to management for fear of losing their jobs. The outcome is lost creativity, innovation and the creation of wealth.

Thanks for stimulating some thinking.

This Girl said...

While agree with the premise of this post, the reality (and resultant fallout) of speaking the truth to power is tough to deal with. I have always spoken up, indeed I feel it is my responsibility to do so because it is in the organisation's best interests, but lately am questioning if it's worth it (after an experience with mobbing). It seems that I continually put myself on the line and risk my career, and for what? Nothing changes - ever! - and I'm generally "encouraged" out for being the messenger who tells inconvenient and embarrassing truths. I blogged about this dilemma ( have decided that truth is a gift that should be earned rather than freely given. The reality is that unless I am in a position of power and can champion change myself, things are unlikely to improve. The Catch 22 is that organisations are unlikely to award me any sort of power because the hierarchy can see I am committed to both questioning and changing the status quo.

Rober @ Jobs in Pakistan said...

I certainly agree with you Dan, now we need Transparence leadership. Indeed, truth is become reason of your successful life if you believe on yourself.