Most people pay too much attention to themselves and others as standalone individuals when trying to understand why some things get talked about and heard, while others don’t. To understand how truth does and doesn’t get spoken to power you have to pay attention to the relationship that exists between the more and less powerful – and wishful thinking that disappears differences in power is a sure-fire way to ensure truth doesn’t get spoken or heard.
1. There are no five tips to speaking truth to power
How people experience what can and can’t be said is wrapped up in context and history. There is no prescription, instead each of us has to find our own way of making this possible in the unique contexts that we find ourselves, dealing with the individual and collective histories that are alive in the world. As soon as we reach for the boiled down check list, we will inevitably strip away the liveliness that makes it possible for the relationships, within which we all know and find our identity, to be worked with to shift their established patterns.
2. It’s a power thing
How we experience power in ourselves and through our relationships with others lies at the heart of what does and doesn’t get said. The more senior we are, the more authority we have in a situation, the more we over-estimate how easy it is for people to speak up – mistaking our relative ease for the experience of others. It rests with the more powerful to put themselves in the shoes of the less powerful and think about where and when they will feel most able to speak up – while also being honest about their interested in hearing from others.
3. It’s a relationship thing
The basic unit of analysis in a conversation is the relationship not the individual. Much of the focus in creating a transparent speak-up/listen-up workplace culture is on the individual and the putting in place of policies and procedures, such as whistleblowing hotlines, which disappear the relational context of speaking up. What gets said and unsaid is a function of who people feel connected to and whether or not they feel heard. Over-rationality in organisational thinking, underpinned by a mechanistic model of the corporation, assumes speaking up is a transfer of data – rather than an expression of human belonging.
4. Words are like loaded revolvers
Words matter and always carry an emotional charge. The belief that you can strip the emotion out of business life by choosing bland words is a fantasy – the pseudo-neutrality of business-speak is as provocative as any way of speaking. It immediately communicates whose world view is being privileged, whose truth is seen as being important. For people to speak up, they must feel they can use their own words and express them in their own ways. As soon as you insist others have to use an approved canon, you are silencing them and encouraging disconnection to grow between groups.
5. Truth is a lively, slippery, multi-facetted beast
Truth at work is a constant work-in-progress, it emerges in the contested priorities and realities people have, which exist outside of the bland certainties of espoused shared values and visions. Difference of experience and perspective is always present in organisations, we often wish them away in pursuit of the fantasy of collective harmony. Embracing difference and walking towards the sound of disagreement is what gives an organisation vitality. Learning how to make it okay to express differences is what makes it possible for emotional and psychological safety to live – and is the wellspring of a robust speak up culture.
Speaking-up is a collective activity, from which nobody can opt out. When it happens for real, when the intentions of the powerful are sincere, then whistleblowing is revealed to be the sticking plaster it is – and innovation can flourish.
About the author
I’m a longstanding researcher into the use and abuse of power in the workplace. In parallel I work as a coach at all levels of organisations and across many sectors and geographies. My intention when working with individuals and groups is to help people find their voice and help those around them find their voice as well. This work is underpinned by a long running association with the Ashridge Doctorate and Masters in Organisational Change –that has seen me write with both faculty and students to unpick the taken-for-granted assumptions that lock them into acting in a particular way.
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