Speaking Truth to Power

Colleagues looking through blinds

By Megan Reitz and John Higgins

The need for transparency has never been more important, both in politics and in business. However, new research from Hult International Business School suggests that most leaders are genuinely blind to the fact of just how difficult it is for others to speak up to them.  Hult professor Megan Reitz and her research partner John Higgins share their findings and provide advice for leaders on how to create the conditions for open and effective dialogue.


In the last year we’ve seen an unprecedented number of business leaders pleading ignorance of employee misconduct. The “I didn’t know what was happening further down the company” refrain has lost its power and leaders are suddenly being held accountable.

The issue of transparency and improved connection within organisational hierarchies is of particular importance within the finance and health sectors. We’ve seen all too well what happens when dominant leaders see themselves as unquestionably right, and when those around them feel they can only say what is safe to say. The leaders become disconnected from reality and everyone else feels unable to challenge the equilibrium.

Of course speaking truth isn’t just about reporting bad or unethical behaviour. There is an ever-growing need to innovate quickly in today’s climate. Start-ups have the advantage here in that their naturally flat structure means much less of a delay between idea formation and implementation, allowing for greater experimentation. To harness the collective intelligence often needed for innovation, those at the top of an organisation have to be prepared to listen to those at the bottom. This still isn’t happening with people reporting what they believe will be acceptable. Moreover, those in the middle and bottom of organisations are sitting on their ideas to avoid rocking the boat and affecting their chances of promotion or damaging peer relationships.

It’s clear that in many organisations, the dynamic needs to shift.

The recent report from Hult found that “speaking truth to power” is a lot more complicated than simplytelling your staff they can pop in whenever they like.

The recent report from Hult, “Being silenced and silencing others: developing the capacity to speak truth to power”, is the result of a two-year study which highlights a problem that not only perpetuates bad behaviour but also prevents the passing on of vital intelligence that could positively affect company success. The research – conducted via interviews, individual and group action research, organisational studies and workshops – found that “speaking truth to power” is a lot more complicated than simply telling your staff they can pop in whenever they like.

The trend of “conversational leadership”, encouraging leaders to be more accessible and relationally oriented towards employees has been a valuable addition to modern leadership behaviour. However, there is a real danger in underestimating or deliberately ignoring the complexities and consequences of how truth gets spoken to those in power and, moreover, how different forms of power determine what counts as truth.

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More than just lip service

Power is an essential and pervasive aspect of organisational life. It centres around the dynamic and subjective perceptions that develop in relationships and change as a result of perceived status differences. The differences are caused by anything from position in the company, expertise or social connections to gender or ethnicity.

Truth telling and power are intertwined. Asking people to “speak up” and encouraging leaders to “engage in conversation” is, of course, a positive step but without thoroughly appreciating the impact that power differences – and the prevailing social and cultural norms – have on what can be said, and how it’s dealt with, is naïve at best. The report finds that, rather than make things better, at worst it can trivialise the issue, engendering organisational cynicism. What’s needed is long-term cultural change.  


The sound of silence

The research uncovered five aspects of silencing-self and silencing others:

• Conviction (the belief in the value of others’ contribution)

• Risk awareness (the capacity to empathise with how risky people might find it to speak up)

• Political awareness (knowing why people are saying what they’re saying and what they expect to be done with the information)

• Social awareness (the awareness of how to work with the social rules present in a conversation so that people will speak up)

• Judgement (the skill of knowing what to do in order to encourage people to be prepared to speak up).

The upshot is that as a leader, you might be perfectly happy for your staff to approach you at any time. You might say you have an open-door policy but what does this really mean? You’re saying, “You come to MY office”, you know you can shut the door at any time and you’re meeting them from the already powerful position of having your own office in the first place. Saying “my door is always open” isn’t enough. You might already be silencing your employees simply by being blind to the power dynamic. 

More conscious, choiceful and transparent decisions need to be made about both speaking up and hearing others. Truth and power are inextricably linked and no matter how approachable leaders try to be, employees will always monitor what they say and only disclose what they feel safe disclosing or what they think won’t affect their position in the workforce.


Cultural considerations

Leaders who want to create a more open environment need to consider what type of culture currently exists within their organisation and how easy (or difficult) that prevailing culture makes it for people to share what they know.

Leaders who want to create a more open environment need to consider what type of culture currently exists within their organisation and how easy (or difficult) that prevailing culture makes it for people to share what they know.

The research identifies four types of organisational culture – empowering, adjudicated, directive and dialogic.

In an empowering culture, there is often a clearly identified leaders who makes the big important decisions, while still allowing scope for employees to contribute within set boundaries.

In an adjudicated culture, the leader takes on the persona of the “wise owl” who listens to opposing points of view and makes a decision about the way forward.

As you would expect, in a directive culture there is a single, all-powerful, “heroic” leader who expects people to follow his or her lead without challenge.

By contrast, in a dialogic culture, there is little formal hierarchy and often no obvious chain of command.  The leader typically sees their role as bringing people together to discuss issues and make decisions.

Once you have audited the landscape and identified this, ask questions such as, “What are the consequences of people not speaking openly? Whose opinion matters to you? When have you encouraged others to speak up? How have you treated those who have spoken up? To what extent do people challenge you currently and in what forums? How do you make others feel important, comfortable and significant? What sources of power are you seen to have by others? What are the implications of this for how they see your status and power? What does it take for you to change your mind? How does “not knowing” make you feel as a leader?”

These questions and their answers should start conversations about the cultural norms and begin to change the organisational system.


Long-term strategies

The report finds that small gestures and reactions offered by those perceived to be powerful are highly symbolic and influential to those deciding whether to speak up. How effective this is, however, could depend on whether there’s an appetite from those in power to change these cultural norms. The answer doesn’t lie in holding one-off sessions on the subject of speaking up, it lies in forming long-term strategies. These could include action learning sets that can bring together small groups of people from across the organisation to discuss their experiences, work on thorny issues and commit to experiments and disciplined learning over time. 



Developing mindfulness is also highly relevant to the capacity to speak up or enable others to speak up. Offering opportunities to develop mindfulness and to develop the capacity to consciously observe, in the moment, one’s own thoughts, feelings and assumptions can help as this will allow individuals to be aware of their actions and choose their response rather than react automatically. More mindful individuals are more effective at focussing, empathising with others, seeing others’ perspectives and adapting to the situation – all extremely important skills for enabling others to speak up and also for the individuals who need to speak up.  


Other voices

Trusted advisors also play a part in this culture change. These advisors might be bosses, peers, direct reports or external coaches, family members or other connections. What they do have in common is the ability to challenge an individual and offer alternative perspectives and feedback on their behaviour and how they are perceived in the workplace.


The right people for the job

Constructing opportunities for voicing ideas and challenges are clearly vital to an organisation’s ability to thrive and survive. However, this will only work with the sustained support of everyone in the organisation.

The recruitment process also has a part to play in the perceived power dynamic. There may be ways in which organisations can nurture diversity of voice and individuals can encourage others to challenge them. 

For example, if recruitment processes successfully ensure diversity of voice “on paper”, groups naturally revert to sameness and groupthink. Attention needs to be paid to recruitment and talent management processes that often encourage “sameness”, where those in powerful positions, often inadvertently, seek to increase the power of those similar to themselves.

Facilitating “assisted curiosity” interventions could seek to address this creep towards intellectual sameness. This could involve questioning the way leadership, organising and strategy are approached, so that decisions and choices become more transparent and are the subject of more critical reflection.

Constructing opportunities for voicing ideas and challenges are clearly vital to an organisation’s ability to thrive and survive. However, this will only work with the sustained support of everyone in the organisation. 


About the Authors

Megan Reitz is Associate Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Ashridge, Hult International Business School, where she speaks, researches, consults and supervises on the intersection of leadership, change, dialogue and mindfulness. She is on the Thinkers50 Radar of global business thinkers and is the author of Dialogue in Organizations and Mind Time.

John Higgins is Research Director at The Right Conversation and is an expert in psychologically literate organisational working. Drawing on his experiences as a researcher, coach, consultant and tutor, his work focuses on working with patterns of power to shift organisational cultures to become more transparent and humane.



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