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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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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