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In the last couple of years we have witnessed a catalogue of organisational disasters. From VW to IAAF, we see the devastating effects that result from someone knowing about wrongdoing, but staying silent, or speaking up and not being heard. 

The banking and health sectors are especially fearful of the risks of silence but they are not alone in seeking transparency. In the July 2016 report by the Financial Reporting Council “Corporate Culture and the Role of Boards”, the following observations and recommendations were made that directly address the issue of speaking truth to power:

 “A healthy ‘speak up’ culture breaks down the barriers that can often exist between the workforce and the board… A key ingredient of a healthy culture is a willingness on the part of senior management to listen to their employees… A culture of engagement and ‘permission’ is required for employees to feel able to voice their ideas and concerns”  

As well as being driven by fear, organisations see opportunities in their employees speaking up. In a time when the capacity to generate new ideas and learn from experiences is a key competitive advantage, the urgency to take advantage of an organisation’s collective intelligence is rising. Encouraging a ‘conversational culture’ is on the top team agenda and is often passed to HR and Communications specialists as an objective as if it can be magicked up in response to an end of year target.
Resulting initiatives encourage leaders to ‘manage by walking about’ and ‘keep an open-door policy’. They are drawn out (sometimes with much gnashing of teeth) to ‘meet the employees Friday-lunch pizza sessions’ or similar occasions which aim to free up conversation.  But if they do these things what do they really get to hear? What gets told to the person in power? Do we really think that if a leader has good rapport and listening skills, put to use once or twice a week in various engineered forums, this will ensure they hear ‘truth’? In an organisational system of competing and often conflicting truths whose ‘truth’ gets heard? Whose ‘truth’ gets acted upon and invested in?
My research colleague, John Higgins, and I think that if leaders believe they know what is going on they are probably deluded. For more than seven years we have both researched organisational dialogue and more recently Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School has funded us to conduct a major project into speaking truth to power. We have spoken to over 60 senior leaders, been invited into organisations to interview and observe people from the shopfloor to the Board Room, and facilitated a long running collaborative inquiry with leaders seeking to make a difference in this area. Early next year we publish our findings but here I will introduce a couple of themes that struck us as particularly interesting.
Leaders are oblivious as to the effects of their power
Almost universally leaders we spoke to commented on the inability of their own bosses to invite contribution from others. They were however confident that their teams would not see them in the same light. Whilst they were approachable and non-hierarchical, apparently it was everyone else that wasn’t. Like it or not however, they also wear the label of ‘boss’ and when you have that label a pile of rather annoying assumptions tend to be heaped upon you, such as ‘you never tell the boss everything (well not if you want to keep your job)’. Leaders have to become more cognisant of the fact that they only get to hear part of the story.
Those in powerful positions blame others for not ‘stepping up’
In frustration those in powerful positions wonder why others can’t just ‘step up’ and ‘be frank’. But of course many people feel fearful when speaking to senior people, and senior people under-estimate the fear they can evoke. Whether people take the plunge and speak out depends in part on their assessment of the consequences. If they feel their job, their income to support their family, their social standing, their friendships are all at risk, reticence builds. Sometimes the price is simply too high. They stay quiet. And frankly, who could blame them. As Sam Goldwyn famously said “I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everyone to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job”. If perceptions of risk are to lower then leaders must take great care in their responses to those rare occasions when people do ‘speak up’. If they react poorly, employees will take note and shut down.
Our interventions need to operate at the systemic level
People’s perception of risk is of course fuelled by a kaleidoscope of factors which come together in the moment of an interaction. How safe one feels will not simply be an equation involving the approachability of the person in power and the confidence of the speaker. One senior executive I spoke to described how he was parachuted into a failing organisation where employee morale was low. He described his first visit to the headquarters and how the fence to the building was old and worn with the paint peeling off. It communicated to him, and he surmised to those working there, that the organisation was not respected, and did not respect those working for it. When he was asked at his interview for the role what his first action would be he replied ‘paint the fence’. His reasoning was that if those working in the organisation felt that they were not worth investing in, that they did not deserve attention and that their environment did not matter, then they would be unlikely to think creatively and to speak out with their ideas. Environment mattered to him. In his eyes it was one of the many systemic issues which could determine whether the employees would speak truth to him.  

Our research delves into the complexities of speaking truth in organisations in a bid to move away from blithe catch phrases and quick fixes promised by some management models. In doing so we hope to become more realistic and hence more useful to those in organisations who believe, like we do, that the quality of conversations in organisations might just be the main source of competitive advantage, and the main hope for dealing with our enormous societal challenges, in the 21st century.

 Megan Reitz is author of Organizational Dialogue: Developing Relational Leadership [Dialogue in Organizations] published by Palgrave Macmillan 2015. She runs an international consultancy Reitz Consulting Ltd. speaking, writing and consulting on the subjects of leadership, dialogue and mindfulness and is Associate Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School.

In 2017, Megan will be delivering a seminar on the topic of Speaking Truth to Power for the IoIC. For more information, please contact Sarah Magee at [email protected]  
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