What happens when you imagine marshaling your courage and telling your boss or someone important that he’s made the wrong judgment call? Do you fear retaliation or making a problem situation worse?
If speaking the truth to power feels as risky as jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, you’re not alone. Courageously confronting authority can entail personal and professional danger.
The problem, however, isn’t speaking the truth; it’s how you speak it. You can’t march in with verbal guns blazing, making aggressive “got ya” statements. Instead, you need to earn the right, avoid hit-and-run collisions, act as a partner, provide facts, and prepare to be challenged.
Earn the right
Who do we allow to tell us what we don’t want to hear? Those we trust. Before you offer your opinion, ask yourself—have you earned the right? If you work in an organization, have you shown you’re invested in your company’s success? If you plan to provide negative views to a friend or peer, have you offered positive comments or do you only speak up when you don’t like something? Can you frame your concerns in terms of what’s best for your company? Do you genuinely care about the person you’re confronting?
Sometimes, of course, the person to whom you need to speak truth isn’t someone you want to succeed, but instead someone who still needs to hear what you have to say. If that is true, you earn the right by making absolutely sure you speak with integrity and without an agenda.
Don’t “hit and run”
Remember, the bottom line of communication is communication. What the other person hears matters as much as what you say. If you want someone to hear your truth, don’t “hit and run” by speaking before you’ve considered how your words will sound. Think, “What can I say that the other person might agree with?” For example, would the other person agree he “arrived 50 minutes late” or that he “doesn’t respect you?”
Do you view yourself as the other person’s judge or jury, or as the other person’s friend in the foxhole, willing to deliver the hard truth without a judgmental, parental sting? If you keep what you say respectful, straightforward, and empathetic, your delivery won’t bury your message.
If you want what you say to be heard, do your homework. Assess your viewpoint from all angles and marshal the facts that support what you’re presenting. When you speak facts, you allow another person to draw the same conclusion you have.
Keep your focus on issues, actions, and behaviors rather than assumptions. For example, you might say, “We spoke for forty minutes, and you never asked how this impacted me,” rather than “you don’t care about my feelings.”
If you’re raising a touchy issue and don’t want the discussion to end in disaster, remember to observe how the other person takes what you say. By doing so, you’ll be able to calibrate if you’re getting through or if their eyes have filled with tears or glazed over with anger.
Be prepared for a reaction
When you present truth to power, you need to prepare for a reaction or to be challenged. When that happens, listen, hear the other personal out and consider what they’re saying. Remember, the truth may differ from what you thought.
Cost of silence
Finally, if there’s something you need to say, you let yourself down if you don’t speak up. Keeping silent when you see a looming problem provides at most temporary relief. You weigh yourself down with unsaid words.
You may even play charades, thinking it easier to rely on nonverbal hints and subtle innuendoes to get your message across. Regrettably, you’re not that good an actress/actor. Others rarely receive the message you hope they would. Instead, when you suppress your feelings, your frustration and anger simmer into a toxic brew that eats you up inside or bubbles up.
Is it time to speak the truth to power? There’s no better time.
If you found this post valuable, you might enjoy, https://workplacecoachblog.com/2021/12/telling-your-bosses-theyre-the-reason-employees-quit/ or my newest book: Navigating Conflicts: Tools for Difficult Conversations: https://amzn.to/3CiQ2D7.
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3 thoughts on “Speaking Truth to Power”
Speaking truth to power is one of the biggest challenges to ethical behavior. The undercurrent here is the hint that sometimes the ones you’re thinking about speaking power to are also ones you don’t entirely respect, like, or wish to see succeed at what they’re good at. Unfortunately, too often, that may be true. In my case, a person starts losing my respect when I catch them in a series of lies, when they blame others for mistakes they caused or could have done something about repairing, when they’re always absent when trouble arises, etc. Too often, these things go hand in hand.
Susan, I agree. I’ll need to figure out how to rewrite, because you can’t always like those you need to speak truth to, nor always wish them to succeed. Thanks for the thoughtful reflection.
p.s. Just went back and added a new paragraph based on your thoughtful comment. Lynne
Once I was clearing right of way ahead of rock trucks creating a road
between two villages 17 miles apart. There were 3 authorized pits: one
in each village, and one 6 miles from the camp we had assembled in one of the villages. As the trucks got further and further from the middle pit, I
realized that the huge rock trucks were traveling too far and wasting fuel and man hours just to dump one load.
If we dismantled the camp and barged it upriver, the drivers would be
starting their haul from the pit at the terminus of the road. They would be able to make several trips in the time they were now making one trip.
It seemed like a no brainer, especially since I had heard the superintendent complaining to the master mechanic that fuel consumption was becoming a problem.
I, literally humbly, conveyed my thoughts to the superintendent as he had a rather overdeveloped ego. I made sure we were alone so he wouldn’t feel put on the spot. I expected at least somewhat of a dialogue as I had
several positive conversations with him in the past. He immediately
guffawed and acted like it was the dumbest idea he had ever heard. I was shocked but didn’t push the idea.
At the time, I was seeing a Lady in the office. She told me Macy came in
the office and said, “That laborer said we should dismantle the camp,
barge it up the river, and haul from the pit there. He mumbled, shook his head and went over to his desk and sat down. She said the office
manager/accountant started clicking away on his computer and after a
few minutes said, “That laborer might be on to something. It looks like a win, win if we can get a barge. We lay off the teamsters while we move
the camp and we’ll be able to finish the job ahead of time even though
we’re behind schedule now”.
We moved the camp and while I didn’t get credit for my “suggestion”,
hearing my Lady Friend retell the story was its own reward.
An extra plus: the company was concerned about leaving the equipment over the winter if the Yukon froze up before the job was completed. We finished early and got the equipment barged back to Anchorage before the Yukon iced up.