Speaking truth to power

I don’t recall when I first heard this phrase. It’s one of those, for me, where I have to read it and re-read it just so I’m clear on what it’s saying. It’s a powerful short turn of phrase meant to infer that when the powerful are carrying on regardless, and their actions are causing harm or otherwise, there is a duty on the people to speak truth to them and demand change.

Bit heavy eh.

There are so many things in this turn of phrase to be able to understand and wield. If someone is driven to speak truth to power, there must be something pretty unjust happening, and that individual or group need the confidence to step up and make themselves heard.

We are used to individuals and groups doing this through formal means and we see it on national stage happening often. The Mid Staffs issues of care in hospitals, the CQC involvement in care homes, unions striking because of perceived unfair behaviour by big companies, the way UK politics has taken a beating at the last election. People have ways and means to be able to make their voice heard on the big things that matter.

But what about organisationally? How do we cultivate a work environment where people feel they can speak truth to power? This, I see, is one of those areas where OD truly comes into its purpose. What kind of organisational settings are there where people can feel that if they have a concern, it can be raised with confidence, and without repercussion.

I’m not simply referring to whistleblowing policies, or engagement surveys, or anonymous suggestions boxes or having internal or enterprise social networks. But how does a senior manager confront a senior director about their working practise to let them know there’s a problem with what they ask and it needs improving? How does a team member go to another department and let them know their process is inefficient and they’ve got an idea on how they can improve? How does the CEO of a company challenge his exec team to be more inclusive when he has knowledge that things aren’t right? How does one individual approach another and offer help to complete their project knowing it has little chance of success otherwise?

You can’t write a policy for these things to happen, mostly because these things aren’t about policies. They’re about dynamics between people. Call it culture if you want to, and as Laurie Ruettimann often says on her blog, we all play a part of the culture we are signed up to. You can’t legislate for someone to act in ways where they can speak truth to power. It happens because someone is so pissed off with the status quo that change must happen.

I have no easy answer here. There is no silver bullet and there is no golden nugget. This is one of those topics where people bury their heads in the sand because they don’t want to examine how these things happen. Either because they don’t want to deal with hard conversations like these, or because they’re fooling themselves into thinking they’re already hearing these conversations. This is where OD can influence those conversations to happen, and I think is one of the key purposes of being in such a role.

Sure it’s about trust and honesty and transparency and all of those things. But if you have someone who doesn’t want to be part of that way of doing things, then what? If you have a group of people who persistently don’t act in a certain way, then what? If you have an individual who is the one chomping at the bit and no one else is biting, then what?

What I do believe is that we can influence these things organisationally. We can find the right forums for people to do this. In my work as a facilitator, there are often times when I hear conversations, or edges of conversations and make a call about challenging what I’m hearing. That’s not me speaking truth to power, I’m just reflecting openly what I’m hearing. The truth to power gets spoken by the people present. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Where it does happen, I know that I’ve created the right environment for it to happen. Where it doesn’t it tells me that I have more work to do in helping people raise their voice in a safe way.

What does this post get you thinking?

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

4 thoughts on “Speaking truth to power”

  1. I tweeted earlier that I was particularly taken with the 3rd to last paragraph, and Sukh has asked me why that got me. I suppose that having worked in big organisations for many years now, going through change after change, I recognise how hard this is, and if there was a silver bullet, whoever came up with it would be in huge demand/very rich by now. In my experience, these changes have often been imposed in response to mandatory efficiency savings and often the structural aspects have received much more attention than feelings, perceptions and shifts in culture. The tangible is much easier than the intangible, especially when the messages are hard to give. Although I wish this weren’t the case, I can empathise with leaders who ‘don’t want to deal with hard conversations like these or because they are fooling themselves into thinking they are already hearing these conversations’. I think your choice of words is crritical here too. To ‘deal with’ to me implies something that would only be done with reluctance, but should be sorted, when really ‘truth to power’ should lead to processing, taking on board, reflecting and acting…
    So yes, I agree skilled, compassionate and brave OD is critical here.

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