Speaking truth to power in a commercial organisation…

The Badger was reminded of the dangers of speaking truth to those in power while talking to a friend at a social event recently. While sharing stories of the ying and yang of company life, his friend mentioned that they had been quietly tapped on the shoulder to say that they were at risk of redundancy. The Badger’s friend, with many years of loyal service, explained that their relationship with their boss had deteriorated, and that their boss was manipulating their exit because they had been consistently and relentlessly telling them the truth about project difficulties and necessary corrective actions. The boss, apparently, didn’t want to accept the truth, the difficulties were getting worse, and the Badger’s friend’s level of frustration suggested that both individuals had come to the end of their tethers!

Speaking truth to power is fraught with danger and to minimise its risks requires not only having an objective understanding of the personality and priorities of the person holding the power, but also good awareness of organisational politics, culture, and other factors. Without this, someone speaking truth to power might not foresee or prepare for the personal consequences of possible retaliation. These points were made to the Badger by his own boss many years ago during a coaching session. Their advice has influenced the way the Badger has spoken truth to power ever since.

One crucial piece of advice was that when speaking your truth, you must fully understand that you are either challenging something the person with power is responsible for, or their view or opinion of a situation or circumstance. It is thus essential to focus on the issue rather than on criticising the person or others. It is also essential, before you speak, to think through not only the possible retaliations and negative consequences for yourself, but also your gameplan should these materialise. If you don’t embrace these points then you may be ignored, your frustration will fester,  and you will be both flummoxed and unprepared should someone, for example from HR, tap you on the shoulder because you’re ‘a problem’. The Badger’s boss commented that anyone speaking truth to power must themselves partake in the gamesmanship that is inherent in the functioning of any sizeable commercial organisation.

Good leaders and managers, of course, want open communication and to hear truths spoken by peers and subordinates. Indeed, many cultivate dispassionate, objective, and dependable trusted advisors who tell them the truth. The least effective, on the other hand, only hear what they want to hear and are dismissive of truths from others. Unfortunately, the Badger’s friend had not foreseen the dangers of speaking truth to leaders. They have, however, learned to think before speaking, to always consider the potential personal consequences beforehand, and to have a pre-prepared game plan to look after your interests if you get a tap on the shoulder. Speaking truth to power requires gamesmanship…

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