Speaking truth to power – definition: (Huffington Post) “Speaking truth to power means believing deeply in what you say and fighting every day to have that heard. It may not be popular; it means taking a risk, it means standing for something.”
Alternate definition: having the guts to tell the truth about your company to the one in power.
Today I wanted to talk about Speaking Truth to Power and why it’s so important for us as managers in preventing us from becoming what we call Naked Emperors. You might recall the fairytale of the Emperor’s New Clothes who thought he was buying the finest suit of clothes ever made from an unscrupulous tailor when, in reality, it was a suit made of “invisible thread” so he ended up wandering around naked. Unfortunately, nobody had the guts to tell him he was naked until, finally a little boy, said, ‘Hey! You don’t have any clothes on!”
That little boy was the only one brave enough to tell the emperor the truth he needed to know. So I ask myself, are my people, the people who work for me willing to speak truth to power and tell me when I have no clothes on? (Not that I make a practice of wandering around my office in the nude.) Do I wield enough power to cause them to feel intimidated? I’m a pretty nice guy but let’s face it, they work for me, I pay their salaries, and if I wanted to, I could make their lives difficult.
Would You Speak Truth To Power To You?
I would ask you to think about the relationships you’ve had with managers for whom you’ve worked. There’s always that power imbalance between you and those for whom you’ve worked. Has it ever caused you to be hesitant when you should have been bolder in expressing your opinion? Has it ever affected your ability to tell the truth when the truth needed to be told? Then, ask yourself, would your employees answer that question as you have?
I think of a client I had some years ago, the CEO of a medium-sized company. He had hired me to do a series of training sessions on basic supervisory skills for first and second line managers. In the planning meeting with him and his VPs, I suggested that he consider attending the classes as it would send a message to everyone that they were important.
Without warning, he slammed his hand on the table and said, “I don’t need to go to these kinds of basic classes. I’ve got an MBA from Harvard for God sakes.” With that, I looked around the room and everybody was looking at their shoes and not saying a word. Later, one of the vice presidents pulled me aside and said, “Listen, l’ll to talk to him when he calms down. He gets his way sometimes. He’s just weird.” Later, the VP did, indeed, talk to him and the CEO wound up coming to all supervisory classes to show that he supported them.
This experience got me wondering if people in the organization were, in general, afraid to talk to the CEO and tell him things he needed to know. So, as part of the organization-wide survey I was doing anyway, I included the questions, “Are you able to be honest and frank with people above you?” and “Are you able to be honest and frank with the CEO and tell him what you think?” The results came out that 80% of the respondents said they felt intimidated by the CEO and they would never bring to his attention anything that they thought might upset him.
When I shared this information with the CEO, he was dumbfounded. He didn’t think it was possible that people wouldn’t be straight with him. He went on to say, “Heck, I’m just a big old bear, and my bark is worse than my bite.” It turned out that the CEO was totally off target about his people and their willingness to be frank with him. So, I think it’s important that managers ask themselves, “Are my people willing and able to be straight with me? Is there a possibility that I could be a Naked Emperor and not even know it?”
Of course, when people speak truth to power, there may be substantial risk. “Sir Thomas More did it at the cost of his life when he spoke truth to power against King Henry VIII; Martin Luther King Jr. did it at the cost of his freedom when he ended up in the Birmingham jail and eventually at the cost of his life (Huffington Post).
Listen To Those Willing To Speak Truth To Power
I’m amused by this quote from Samuel Goldwyn of Metro Goldwyn Mayer: “I don’t want any yes-man around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth, even if it costs them their jobs.” My guess is that probably not many people were straight with him.
I like this quote from Samuel Johnson better. “In order that all men may be taught to speak the truth, it is necessary that all men should learn to hear it.” In other words, when people feel like they’re being heard, they’re more likely to tell you the truth.
So, maybe the first step in making sure that you’re not a Naked Emperor is to be willing to hear people out and listen to them carefully. Even more, to ask their opinions. You might follow the example of Robert Townsend. He was the guy who took over the Avis car rental company when it was struggling and turned it around to be a major competitor of Hertz.
In his book Up The Organization, he described how, in his first year, he visited all the Avis service centers to ask employees what they thought. In Thursday meetings he called Breakfast with Bob he lead off with three questions:
- What should we keep doing that we’re doing now?
- What should we stop doing that we’re doing now?
- What should we keep doing but changed.
He said gave him an enormous amount of useful ideas and a lot of really bad ideas. He said that the secret of the process was in simply taking people seriously. To listen and hear them out, not argue with them, even if you have to eventually tell them “no.” He said that if you hear people out and convey that you really care about what they are offering, “You can tell them to go to hell and it will be okay, as long as they felt respected in the process.”
He discusses the importance of creating a culture of openness where people can speak truth to power.
Celebrate those willing to speak truth to power
As managers, when people disagree with us, it’s easy to argue with them, especially if you think they’re wrong – and often they are. Remember that you are in a position of power, so when you argue or push back on somebody’s idea, your pushback has a lot more weight than it would when two equal human beings disagree. So, you might want to tone it down, and perhaps, hear them out before responding. Better yet, repeat what they said so they know you heard them. Even acknowledge the good points of what they have to say, and then offer your point of view. If you must say that this is not an idea that you can use, be sure to explain why. Then, let them know that you really appreciate them for expressing their opinion to you. Otherwise, you may win the argument but lose the war because they’ll never take the risk to speak truth to power and you may end up being a Naked Emperor.
In my next videoblog, Ill talk about some specific ways you can conduct those conversations so you can avoid your own defensiveness and get people to speak truth to power.
So, until next time, this is Larry Johnson with Improving Organizational Culture. If you need to contact me, I’m at 602 943 0985 or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Until next time, have a good one.