How to speak truth to power

Speaking up can be a terrifying prospect. An Australian Research Council project report showed that 81.6 per cent of people who reported cases of unethical behaviour in their workplaces faced repercussions for speaking up.

The evidence is clear: if you speak up, there will be consequences, and not often good ones.

We need to ask, is this issue worth risking my reputation, my rapport, my professional standing?

And we also need to ask, if I say nothing, what does that say about my integrity?

Boundless leaders are truthtellers. Having the courage and energy to speak up takes clarity in values and focus.

What if we don’t have positional authority? We can influence by building relationships, educating ourselves to be more valuable, and asking for help and acknowledging others’ expertise.

What about giving feedback to the boss?

This is a more common scenario than calling out unethical behaviours. It can be just as fraught with peril, depending on the supervisor’s personality and agenda.

Where we get all crimped with fear is that we often have a number of assumptions and judgments going on before we even speak to the boss. We are all bent out of shape over something that happened and are torturing ourselves over the incident.

Theresa was gathering her courage to speak to the boss about a new initiative the executive had launched that she disagreed with. Theresa was deeply concerned about the effect it would have on staff morale and felt this was a significant departure from the executive’s commitment to enhancing culture in the workplace. She imagined the executive team in conversation, likely saying that the new initiative would generate savings, even though there might be some resistance amongst the staff…

Theresa approached the boss and blurted out her concerns, red faced.

In the conversation that followed, Theresa discovered the executive was deeply concerned for both staff morale as well as financial stability. The boss explained how the initiative would be rolled out, taking into consideration all of the same worries that Theresa had herself. Theresa left the meeting both relieved, and a little sheepish. She had jumped to conclusions about the executive, their motives, and their values.

If we are offering feedback to the boss, we need to see that feedback as an invitation to explore issues, not a judgment.

Feedback is an opportunity to share a perspective the other person may not be aware of. Feedback to the boss is weighted with fear of repercussions, and needs to be handled carefully. Treat feedback as an opportunity to learn and to ask questions.

In speaking our truth to power, share feelings and invite insight, and avoid making judgements. There is usually more to the story than we can see.

The world needs Boundless Leaders, leaders who can share their perspective and truth while seeking to understand more of where others are coming from. It turns out openness is the best defence, and compassion the smartest weapon.

When have you spoken truth to power? When have you been caught on the backfoot after making a judgment that was proven incorrect? How might you pause and be curious, compassionate when an issue arises?


Related Articles

3 ways to influence without authority

How to influence without alienating others

Is it better to let sleeping dogs lie?


P.S. And when you’re ready, here are three ways I can help:

1. Grab a free copy of our Boundless Leadership Toolkit

It’s the roadmap to develop a boundless organisation: e-books, white papers, checklists for more impact, less struggle.

2. Get equipped at our next event

Meet other adventurous leaders seeking to be, think, and do more. Leadership training and tribe meetings are listed here.  

3. Work with me and other Renegade Pathfinders in the Leader’s Edge Mastermind

If you’d like to work directly with me to build a boundless life, team, or organisation, send me an email with PRIVATE in the subject line and let me know a little about your work and what you’d like to work on together.