Speaking Truth to Power

“Speaking truth to power is to express our opinions frankly and openly to people who have some form of power over us,” a definition from thought leader David Gurteen.

The concept of Speaking Truth to Power goes as least as far back as the Ancient Greeks and became well used by the Quakers in the 1950s.

What we know today about Speaking Truth to Power is that it is damned hard. Am I right? Okay, so let’s take a look at what makes it so hard and then, as always, what might make it better.

What Makes it Hard?

Consider these excerpts below from an article on Speaking Truth to Power by researchers Megan Reitz and John Higgins:

In organizations, we are constantly navigating and constructing perceptions of power difference which in turn affect whether we expect to be heard or ignored and whether we seek others’ opinions or not.

We are social beings wanting to belong. To speak up (and to stay silent) is a political act that has consequences for our relationships—not to mention very real consequences for our careers and financial security.

Job title, gender, ethnicity, age, appearance, accent, and a plethora of others. In turn, these labels each convey differing levels of status and authority, depending on how they are socially constructed in a specific context. The same label may convey very different expectations in different organizations, countries, or circumstances.

What these researchers found was that the #1 reason that people remain silent is that they are afraid of being perceived negatively. But that’s not all. A close second was that people are reluctant to speak up out of respect and deference to power and authority as well.

Whether we like it or not, those who have status and authority have the power to determine who speaks and who does not, who belongs and who does not, who is in and who is out.

Much as we want to stand out as individuals, to be valued for our uniqueness, we all want to belong, especially to belong where the power resides.

In Paradoxes of Group Life, the authors talk about how we are wired to both want to fit in and stand out. Old saying is that if two people are exactly alike, one of them is unnecessary. And, who wants to be unnecessary? Hence, the need to stand out.

And yet, we may feel more included when we think, sound, look, and act like others (e.g., political party affiliation). From an earlier post of mine:

Narcissistic Process and Corporate Decay [details] a tendency in employees to focus more on satisfying the boss’ ego than on producing their finest quality work. We know these as “Yes” men and women, who yes it up pretty much for the reasons The Stupidity Paradox authors say – for the comfort, safety, and harmony of a smooth, humming organizational machine. Until it crashes because too many corporate leaders are hanging onto policies of the past no matter how bad they are, and too many employees and leaders alike prefer to live in some kind of Lala land rather than face the hard facts, choices, and conflicts necessary to survive and to thrive.

So, when we lose ourselves completely to this process, we not only deprive and deplete the organizations and communities who need the truth to survive and to thrive, but we run the risk of completely losing who we are as well. And you will know that this is happening by how awful it feels.

Interestingly, and unfortunately, there are predictions that conformity attitudes will rise post-pandemic, based on prior research, that collectivist attitudes rise in societies with higher prevalence of disease. And we do seem to be exhibiting ever-increasing, even bizarre, I think, huddling within tribes.

So, what can we do to help us speak truth to the powerfully opinionated, and in other circumstances with which we may have trouble receiving and/or speaking truth to power?

What Makes it Better?

Let’s start with a breakdown of people in power and the people struggling to speak truth to them—recognizing that a single individual can be one or both at any given time.

For the People in Power:

Reitz and Higgins offer up some wonderful advice for leaders, listed here below:

– Assume you are scarier than you think.

– Question your ‘little list’ of whose opinion counts.

– Send ‘speak up’ rather than ‘shut up’ signals and responses.

For the People Struggling to Speak Truth to Power:

Let’s take this from Penny Herscher, who, by her bio, appears to be a pretty accomplished force in her own right, from her article in Inc. Paraphrasing here:

– Executives time is well guarded. Be persistent and bring a suggestion or solution when you do get to speak up about a problem.

– Remember that it is not only your right but your responsibility to use your voice and share your perspective.

– If the tone of your delivery is constructive and you are doing a good job, your message should be more appreciated than punished. If it is the latter, go find a better leader to work for.

– We may wish or assume that leaders know everything already. That’s a myth. But if they do know what you just told them, then you confirmed it. If they didn’t, you just made them better.

– If someone responds aggressively to what you have said, remain calm. Other people in the room may not rush to your side because they do not want to draw the anger in their own direction. But chances are good that you have earned their respect.

For All the People:

Breathe. This stuff is not easy in either direction. Old habits die hard. But we have to start somewhere.

And, I am always on the side of putting the higher brain in charge as we practice, practice, practice…new ways of being in the world that will come to feel more natural, authentic, and useful to you than they may now.

For any who does not already have this Power Breathing, 30 Second Mindset Reset to put the executive brain in charge, you can grab one on the “Complimentary…” pulldown at https://madelaineweiss.com.



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About the Author: Madelaine Weiss
Madelaine Claire Weiss (LICSW, MBA, BCC) is a Licensed Psychotherapist, a Board Certified Executive-Career-Life Coach, and bestselling author of “Getting to G.R.E.A.T. 5-Step Strategy for Work and Life.” sfas

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