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4 Steps for Speaking Truth to Power

Even when they can't handle the truth

In the workplace, speaking truth to power usually means telling our boss or another leader what they are doing wrong or what they should do differently. But before we try to get our leaders to consider our ideas, it’s worth understanding what truth and power are in the workplace, and figuring out why we might want to speak our own truth to power.

opinions are important, even if they’re not true for everyone

Without going into the theories of how we can know anything, I’ll offer that when we say something is good, bad, right, wrong, true or false, we’re only providing a opinion based on our personal beliefs. Very few things in the world can be established as facts; for example, pure mathematicians can dazzle us with an argument that 1 + 1 does not equal 2. But, regardless of trying to establish something as good or bad, opinions about how things can be better are important and you probably have some “good” opinions about how to improve your organization. Just remember that other people have their own opinions that are as “true” for them as yours are for you. So, speaking truth to power is really just about challenging someone’s opinion with our own.

understand the type of power you are challenging

Power in the workplace comes in many forms. Because our supervisors and their leaders are higher in the organizational hierarchy, they possess legitimate power: the right, within the organization, to expect us to comply with certain requests. Outside of legitimately powerful people, some people in our organizations have coercive power (they will bully us into doing something), some have reward power (they give or deny various benefits or advantages), and some have information power (they provide or withhold important information). When we understand the type of power we’re challenging, we can assess the consequences of potential retaliation.

two reasons to challenge the status quo and speak your truth

Senior leaders often tell me that few people give them feedback or effectively challenge their ideas. Even though we can all name some very senior leaders who, to quote Jack Nicolson in A Few Good Men, “can’t handle the truth,” good leaders truly value people who challenge the status quo and effectively speak their own truth. So the first reason to speak truth to power is that good leaders want feedback. The next reason to challenge the status quo by speaking your truth is that you just can’t live with the way things are; it’s eating you up, you have to say something, and you are ready to live with the outcome.

4 steps for speaking truth to power:

  1. Before you speak your truth to power, try to understand the reasons for the status quo or for someone else’s opinion or perspective. This new understanding might change your own truth.
  2. Before you speak your truth to power, understand the type of power you are challenging and imagine the potential negative consequences. If someone retaliates, how bad will it be and is it worth it to you?
  3. When you speak your truth to power, focus on what is actually happening and what you believe can change. Don’t tell someone they are wrong or that they have done something bad; and, don’t say that your ideas are good or better. Instead, explain the current behaviour, situation, or potential outcome of the status quo, and then explain the benefits of the future you want to create and how you want to create it.
  4. When you speak your truth to power, know that you are likely challenging something that this person is responsible for, or maybe you are threatening someone’s view of the world. Good leaders will listen and appreciate it, as long as you are focused on the issue, not on them, and don’t criticize other people.

Great leaders go out of their way to seek opinions, especially those opinions that are different and challenge their own. These leaders also help others constructively challenge power and make it safe to do so. Hopefully, your leader is ready to hear your truth that you need to speak.

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