Mary, a senior director, struggled to keep her team’s morale together after a new vice president stepped in and radically changed the dynamic of the working relationship. Team members were no longer given the opportunity to share their wins and challenges or to contribute their ideas. However, Mary was hesitant to challenge the new VP on his management skills.
Being in the position of having to make a choice between speaking truth to authority and towing the party line is incredibly challenging. While some companies actively encourage staff at all levels to speak up if they have opposing viewpoints, the vast majority hold ‘loyalty’ as a blind virtue. Many institutional leaders, perhaps driven by the same ego that helped them rise through the ranks in the first place, argue that employees’ loyalty should be to them personally instead of to the company. In these situations, speaking up can lead to being ostracized or even terminated.
Famed economist Albert O. Hirschman would say that a manager in the above situation has three options: exit, loyalty, or voice. Exiting entails offering a principled resignation and moving on without letting leadership know the reason for departure. Showing loyalty, the most commonly pursued tactic, means being a ‘team player,’ swallowing objections and following along regardless of professional or moral misgivings. Voicing discontent, by far the most challenging of the three, involves speaking truth to power.
The risks of pursuing the final option–voice–are real. But the potential rewards are commensurately high: empowerment, greater alignment with your own personal and professional values, and contributing to a culture change in your place of work. Here are some tips to help when it comes time to give voice to your concerns:
1. Be clear and specific: Make sure you have clearly defined your ‘truth.’ What specific behavior or policy do you feel is wrong? How is it out of alignment with the company’s values or mission? The more you are able to connect the truth you are conveying with a concern for the greater good of the team or company, the stronger your case will be.
2. Consider the counter-argument: The more you are able to anticipate the response to your argument, the better. How can you address counter-arguments before they are made? Try seeing the issue from different angles before diving into the conversation.
3. Try not to focus on the outcome: You can only control the outcome of matters under your direct influence. In many situations where you are speaking in the face of greater power, the ultimate outcome may be a factor of many different variables. Your only responsibility is to articulate your truth with specificity and integrity.
4. Be realistic about the possible consequences: While it would be nice if every instance of speaking truth to power lead to new policies or recognition of previously unacknowledged potential, that’s simply not the case. Openly acknowledge that there may be consequences to your actions and plan accordingly.
5. Speak calmly and not when you are angry: When a policy or behavior pushes our buttons, it is easy to lash out immediately. Anger can obscure the truth underlying your objections and make it easier for a non-receptive manager to dismiss your arguments. Venting is different than speaking truth. Take the time to breathe, step back, and assemble your thoughts.
6. Change blockers or deflators to questions or solutions: A ‘blocker’ is someone who typically responds to new ideas with negativity and an exhaustive list of reasons why the ideas are bad. A ‘deflator’ points out everything that could possibly go wrong with the new idea. If you are a blocker or a deflator, you are sucking the energy out of the room. If you are not careful, you could develop a reputation for being pessimistic and for focusing only on problems instead of solutions. Instead, try listening carefully to what is being discussed. Listen for themes and values. Ask insightful questions based on what you are hearing. For instance, what is the personal or emotional impact on the people who will be affected by this decision? How can we address what might go wrong? Offer ideas and solutions. Leaders are those who inspire others to think of the situation in a different way in order to find new ways to move forward to achieve the same goals.
Many changes and innovations have been the result of people speaking their truth and objecting to the perceived wisdom of management. It is challenging, but when done with consideration and clarity, it is a powerful way to stay true to your core values while contributing to the company as a whole.