Speaking Truth to Power

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What do you do when your boss rejects your idea or input and you and most everyone else knows that the boss is wrong?

Do you resign yourself to the decision or push back?

And does your leader typically shut people down who have an opposing position?

What next?

Occasionally one comes across very senior leaders be it a master teacher, political leader, or C-suite Executive who are so ego invested in their enterprise that will not tolerate any opposing perspective. In contrast, great leaders have a passionate curiosity and value those who raise intriguing questions and opposing points of view.

Here are examples of leaders who do not want the truth to be told.

o A senior vice president challenged the CEO’s new strategy. The leader penalized him by reducing the scope of his leadership.

o A Master teacher sought to expel a student who confronted the teacher about his ethical lapses.

o A CFO withdrew funding from a project because the General Manager challenged her on the allocation of resources.

o  A senior scientist refused to support the publication of research by a junior colleague that potentially would contradict his theories.

People at lower levels of leadership sometimes find it very difficult to speak truth to power. Some underlying reasons for this inhibition are that they:

o Carry unresolved childhood conflicts related to power and authority, which are automatically (and unconsciously) expressed, either through acquiescence to (or rebellion against) authority figures.

o Adopt irrational fears that if they speak up on an issue they will be penalized.

o Want to receive favor from the boss; be seen as team players; not be viewed as “whiners” or problematic.

o Have significant self-esteem problems and do not see the value of their contribution to the organization. They sometimes feel like imposters.

o Know that the work culture reacts with censure when a person speaks out.

What can you do if you find yourself in such a culture of truth suppression?

How We Tell the Truth

Truth telling occurs in an open environment where there is no penalty for challenging the decisions of senior leaders.

The initiative to be open to the truth has to start at the very top. Senior leaders set the example by intentionally:

1. Encouraging their team to express a diversity of opinion.

2. Listening with the purpose of including others’ perspectives.

3. Expressing their own humility and inner security by being open about their own mistakes and doubts.

4. Treating their own strong views like a scientific hypothesis that is open to testing.

5.  Avoiding the temptation to mythologize the power of their position by creating a story about their unerring greatness.

Followers who face the muting of the truth need to learn that they:

1.  Can adapt the way truth is spoken to the style and needs of the leader. The lesson to learn is that it’s not always what one says but how it is said.

2.  Speak to a downside of a position they need to balance it with a vision of how things could be.

3.  Can be confident and secure about their own views.

4.  Can lobby for support for their position from other key stakeholders.

5.  Choose their battles carefully and learn when to walk away.

6.  Need to understand the culture of their organization. In some countries one does not challenge leaders in public since it leads to a “loss of face.”

In ancient Rome when a conquering general returned from the battlefront, he was given a celebratory parade, that took place in front of the Emperor, through the streets of Rome. It is said that a slave accompanied the general in his chariot. As they made their way through the cheering crowds, it was the slave’s task to repeatedly remind the General, “Remember, you are not a god.”

Amidst success, leaders need that inner voice of humility to remind them that their accomplishments and position in society do not entitle them to unilaterally impose their views on others or to leverage their status at the expense of others.

Leaders will be most effective when they use their position in the service of others and society.

How did you manage a situation when the truth was “shut down” by a leader?


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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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