Speaking Truth to Power

Over the past week, I had the opportunity to debrief two executives on their narrative 360 feedback results. For one individual, the findings were pretty much as expected, with few surprises in terms of key strengths and areas for improvement. For the other executive, however, there was a significant issue that that took him by complete surprise.

man being honestWhile the astonished executive had some inkling of something ‘going on,’ he didn’t have any idea of the depth, impact and potential consequences of the issue. Not surprisingly, several of his direct reports were quite aware of the situation but hesitated to bring it forward.

During the initial interview process, I explored reasons for this hesitancy to ‘speak truth.’ Explanations varied among team members but ranged from ‘it isn’t my responsibility’ or ‘he didn’t show real interest to my initial mention’ to ‘he really doesn’t like to talk about issues that run counter to his image or reputation.’

While this particular issue was addressed before it had major consequences for the company, lack of candor inside organizations can lead to major fallout on the back side. In today’s rapidly evolving world, it’s essential that leaders have a good grasp of what’s transpiring within their business and markets, as well as with key stakeholders such as employees, clients and shareholders.

Knowing what’s true, for whatever problem appears or situation emerges, is critical to an effective response. Helping people overcome barriers to speaking up and, more importantly, ensuring leaders create a culture of candor are two key elements to success.

Here are some suggestions to overcome barriers to speaking truth to those in authority or with power.

1. Realize It Does Matter

So often, we discount or underestimate the potential impact that our in-depth knowledge will have on a particular situation or issue. If we believe that we really know about something of importance that could affect a course of action or outcome, it’s incumbent on us to speak up and be heard. It benefits everyone involved and may result in a very different, and more positive, outcome. Your knowledge matters.

microphone2. Don’t Assume They Know

Far too often, we assume our leaders should have good knowledge about a problem or issue. In many situations, this just isn’t the case – leadership often has only limited knowledge or is missing many key pieces of information. As staff, we’re often closest to the ‘action’ and have greater awareness of what’s really taking place.

3. Let Go of Being Liked

You may be uncomfortable with the tension and conflict accompanying the delivery of the truth in difficult or challenging situations. Some people in positions of power and authority may not like hearing clear, factual and relevant information, particularly if it conflicts with their own perceptions or affects their sense of competence or self-esteem. You’ll want to gauge the pros and cons of delivering your sensitive information – speaking the truth often entails some degree of risk. But don’t avoid it just because you want to circumvent a difficult conversation or interpersonal discomfort.

4. Frame Your Intentions

Your reasons for providing difficult or sensitive information need to be bigger than strictly meeting your own needs. Be clear on how honest and transparent feedback will benefit others on your team, colleagues in your organization or the broader stakeholder community. A sense of respect and service to others should frame the conveyance of your truths to others.

For leaders, a culture of candor doesn’t happen by circumstance. In many organizations, interpersonal forces are often in play that curtail relevant information sharing and honest feedback. Leaders, however, can take actions that encourage a culture of openness and strengthen overall transparency.

  1. Be Truthful
    One of the consistently top-ranked attributes of effective leadership is trustworthiness. By demonstrating the consistent alignment of language, behaviour and action on a daily basis, leaders role-model the desired way of ‘showing up’ in an organization. Relevant information is shared, messages are consistent and commitments are met.
  2. Encourage Truth to Powerempowered
    Helping staff develop the courage to speak honestly is a valuable asset that should be nurtured. While it’s never easy for people to speak openly about sensitive issues, leaders can actively dig deeper to uncover controversial challenges and issues. Once uncovered, leaders need to demonstrate a willing audience, receptive ear and real curiosity to hear the details and build understanding. Criticism and retribution are not options if you value transparency from your people.
  3. Seek Alternate Perspectives
    By encouraging team members to challenge existing practices and processes, in the context of continuous improvement, leaders can provide fertile ground for staff to speak honestly about challenging and potentially sensitive issues. Ensure that you, as a leader, demonstrate openness and curiosity rather than defensiveness and criticism when receiving difficult or sensitive information.
  4. Develop Capability
    Coaching and training both help staff feel more comfortable and effective in the provision of transparent information and honest feedback. Real-time practice, with their teams, can help leaders be more receptive and skillful in receiving sensitive and challenging information and feedback.

People need to realize that discomfort in the speaking truth to power is often rooted in false assumptions or a desire to avoid temporary uneasiness or distress. Effective and respected leaders need to seek out and encourage the truth despite the potential discomfort or minor embarrassment that may accompany the information.

To learn more about gauging your leaders’ abilities in building a culture of candor, contact me at scott@cygnusconsultants.com or 250-882-8830.

About The Author

Scott Borland, Founder & President of CYGNUS Management Consultants Inc, , is a recognized expert in helping executives host strategic conversations and obtain high impact feedback. He brings insightful perspective and proven strategies to strengthen the alignment between strategy and leadership behaviour. Scott has presented frequently at regional/national conferences and is a regular contributor to online journals/blogs. Follow Scott on Twitter or add him as a connection on LinkedIn.


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