Career Advice

Speaking Truth to Power

My Inc post – August 14

What
is it is that prevents us from speaking truth to those in power: Fear
of punishment? Fear of attack? Fear of being noticed? There are many
reasons we don’t deal in the truth, but great teams, whether a small
company leadership, a public company board, or a political team, learn
to speak and deal in the truth.

Knowing the truth about whatever
situation you are in, or the problem you are solving, is absolutely
critical, and yet so often people can’t overcome their own barriers to
tell those above them the honest truth. From my experience, here are
five reasons that people don’t speak up and some ways you can conquer
these concerns for yourself:

  1. “I can’t get to her”–If
    you’ve ever tried to reach a senior executive at a large company, you
    know how hard it can be to steal a few minutes of their day. They have
    layers of people protecting them and their time: a chief of staff, a
    fierce admin and a busy schedule that seems to create walls of
    unavailability. However, the best executives will make themselves
    available if you bring value. Some of these executives answer emails,
    sometimes they eat lunch in the cafeteria, and if you explain what you
    want to talk about in serious terms, their admin will make time for you.
    Be persistent and when you get your 15 minutes, be sure that you bring a
    solution or suggestion for improvement, as well as the problem you
    believe they need to know about. As a CEO there is nothing more
    frustrating than someone bringing me a problem, dumping it on my lap and
    having no part in helping me solve it. I’d still prefer to know, but it
    is certainly easier to hear a problem when it comes with a proposed
    solution.
  1. “It’s not my place”
    -It’s a self-limiter to believe that just because someone is in power
    above you in the organization chart that they are in some way better
    than you, or superior to you. Everyone has a role to play in the
    organization, and as human beings, everyone is equal. Some jobs carry a
    greater span of decision-making than others and a wider range of
    responsibility, but no one is “better” than anyone else. It’s true that
    in some company cultures executives start to believe that they are
    better and look down on people they don’t consider their “peers,” but
    they are weaker for it and I can tell you from experience that when they
    are looking for a job later they forget that they once thought you were
    beneath them. Remember, you have a place and a voice; your perspective
    is valuable to power and you have a responsibility to share it.
  1. “He won’t like it”–Some
    people don’t like to hear bad news. They would rather you wrap
    everything in the positive, especially if they are conflict averse. You
    need to be aware of your audience’s personality to figure out how to
    deliver a tough message, but don’t be fearful. Fear will only prevent
    you from getting to the real problems and finding solutions. People
    don’t get fired or shut out for telling the truth. If you are
    constructive and are doing a quality job, you will not be fired for
    expressing your opinion on a situation (and if you do, go and work for a
    better leader). Good leaders want to hear the truth, even if it’s
    painful to hear. So, speak up! Have confidence in yourself and don’t
    worry about whether the power player you are speaking with will “like”
    your message.
  1. “She should already know”
    It’s a myth than people in power have all the information. In an ideal
    world, they do, but in a fast-paced business, there is no way that your
    leaders knows everything. You can be sure leaders are talking with
    customers, sales people, your manufacturing leads and your engineers to
    try and getting the information they need to make the right decisions,
    but they never know everything. If you know something that you think
    they should know, tell them. If they were already aware of your concern,
    you just confirmed it. If they were unaware of your concern, you were
    able to bring value and help them be better leaders.
  1. “He shuts me down”–Getting
    shut down is the one obstacle I find the hardest to overcome. This is
    the person who raises his/her voice, gets aggressive and bullies to
    intimidate a speaker into silence. It’s important to remember when
    someone does this to you that it’s a tactic that has been learned
    because it can be effective. I have particularly seen men use this on
    women, but I have also seen men do it to other men. This often happens
    when someone raises a controversial point, particularly if she is
    “pushy,” and a man will get angry as a way to shut down the
    conversation. If this happens to you, remember that others in the room
    probably do not respect this behavior. However, most people will not run
    to the aid of the person who spoke up, because they don’t want to draw
    the anger in their direction. When you speak up and someone attacks you
    with anger, don’t back down if you believe in the truth you are
    speaking. Stay calm and stick to your guns. You might be surprised to
    know that many people in the room agree with you.

One of the biggest reasons people don’t speak up is not about their
leadership, or fear, it’s about being liked. I’ve always been outspoken
and I am very conscious about speaking truth to power, but not everyone
likes it. I have found that some people admire me for it, and when I
leave a team (a company, or a board) those people will thank me for my
contribution. But others think of me as too aggressive and
controversial. For those people, it’s a relief when I leave the group.
It’s hard not to care when people don’t like you, but not everyone will
like you, so get used to it.

Finally, I realized I can’t please
all the people, all the time. It’s most important to be authentic, stop
worrying and speak the truth. You will find that when you do, the
people–the power – that matters will thank you for it.

mm

Penny Herscher

Board director and former tech CEO, passionate about building great businesses and achieving economic equality for women. Mother, wife, daughter. Avid traveler, loyal friend.

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