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…

Setting the bar too high…

In his school days, the Badger was in the school field athletics team because he was good at javelin, long jump, and – rather surprisingly for someone of average height – the high jump. It was, according to the team coach, the Badger’s natural technique rather than any specific physicality that underpinned why he was good at these events. The coach, a resolute athlete who demanded the same dedication from others, had two favourite phrases to encourage team members to train hard and do better. The first was ‘technique is the difference between reliable success and reliable failure’. The second, used especially for the high jumpers, was ‘you don’t jump high unless you set the bar high’. Little did the schoolboy Badger know that he would regularly hear leaders and managers utter this one throughout his working life!

The Badger’s often heard executives say ‘you don’t jump high unless you set the bar high’ when setting an expected, imperative outcome that is challenging, and when trying to persuade their audience that the challenge is tough, but the outcome is within reach. These last few words, however, are crucial because if an audience don’t sense that the outcome is within reach then they will nod sagely, consider argument futile, and only work half-heartedly towards the objective. If that happens then the road ahead will almost certainly be full of disappointment, blame, low morale, problems, and financial under-performance.

For many leaders and senior staff in sizeable organisations, attending an annual gathering at which executives set out the key priorities and targets for the coming year is routine. The Badger’s attended many such events over the years, and whilst fundamentally there’s nothing wrong in using ‘you don’t jump high unless you set the bar high’ to set ambitious targets, two observations crystallise from the experience. The first is that if the audience sense the challenging target is reachable then they will embrace it, fully align their support and activities, and executives will hold onto their jobs. The second is that if the audience feels the bar has been set so high that you need binoculars to see it, then they will pay lip-service to the challenge, gossip about the credibility of executives, worry about the enterprise’s viability, and speculate about whose heads will roll when outcomes are not met.

The point is simply this. If you are the leader in a company, project, programme, or service, then don’t lose touch with reality or your people. If  you set the bar way too high, then you will have an unhappy workforce, people will leave, output and quality will decline, financial forecasts will not be met, and your credibility as a leader will be damaged. The best leaders stay grounded in reality, make good judgements that balance competing soft and hard priorities, set the bar within reach, and communicate honestly and inspiringly. Those that don’t ultimately suffer the consequences.