The (im)possibility of speaking truth to power

Last week, in a discussion about speaking truth to power, someone recommended the documentary ‘Behind the Curve’.  I watched it on Saturday.  It’s a documentary examining the way ‘The internet has revived the conspiracy theory that the earth is flat, and America’s flat-Earth movement appears to be growing despite hundreds of years of scientific evidence disproving the idea.’  It is, as another viewer said, ‘sad, and funny, and fascinating, but it’s also a reminder of the mental gymnastics we would all go to keep our worldview comfortably known.’

In this film you have an example of the power of a belief that over-rides scientific evidence.  Speaking truth to that power isn’t going to get very far in changing the believers’ minds – as the documentary shows.

Much organisation design work is to transform the organisation: leaders talk about moving it from the ‘as-is’ to the ‘to-be’, along the way addressing some perceived and/or real problems.   What this often involves, but is rarely closely examined, is that it usually involves moving from one belief system to another.

For example,  moving from a command and control organisation to a participative and collaborative one.  If leaders have climbed a hierarchical ladder to gain a position of command and control and they believe that system works, at least for them, then what will shift that belief to one where they can be effective leaders in a collaborative and participative organisation.

It’s no good simply saying we want a collaborative and participative organisation if leaders are not willing and able to move their own belief systems (and demonstrate this in practice).  What does an organisation design consultant do, if the client/leader does not show that ability, or recognise the need to show it?  Is it the role of the consultant to speak truth to power i.e. tell the client/leader that if they want to transform the organisation then they must also transform themselves?

A simple answer is ‘yes, it is the role of the consultant’.  Speaking truth to power is, as researchers Megan Reitz and John Higgins say, is ‘vital to an organisation’s ability to thrive and survive.’  In their research they illustrate ‘the limitations of approaches that ‘disappear’ power and truth dynamics, suggesting that the complexities of truth and power must be acknowledged, and mindful action and inquiry undertaken, if organisations are to develop a healthy capacity for ‘speaking truth to power’.

A careful consideration suggests that it is not that simple.  It takes courage.  Doug O’Loughlin in his article  Practicing OD in a VUCA world says, ‘If we are going to create organizations that are actively engaged in dealing with the challenges we face, we need to make it safe for people to speak up for new possibilities’. He continues saying, ‘Courage starts with us [OD consultants]. One metaphor for OD practitioners is that we are the Court Jesters of the old kingdoms, speaking truth to power in ways that helps the royalty get clearer of the impact of their messages and actions.’

And courage is not easy to bring to bear.  For example, if you are an external consultant who has to keep bringing in billable hours or an internal one who is in a more junior hierarchical position than the client would you have that courage?

Gill Corkindale points out in her article The Price of (not) speaking truth to power that ‘It is not easy to speak truth to power, whether it is telling the boss he or she is wrong or owning up to one’s own mistakes. Bosses [and clients] have many means to intimidate — by position, power, personality or even wealth and a sense of entitlement.’

Pondering this while catching up on my reading pile, I came read an article about Chinese sci-fi that made me jump: ‘While Western sci-fi is often alarming, the truth is usually worth discovering … Mr Song suggests that, by contrast, Chinese sci-fi makes a dystopia out of the act of discovery itself, often presenting the truth as not worth knowing, or not worth the risk’.

Speaking truth to power can involves risk, not just for the consultant, but also for the client/boss – for example, does he/she want to know that things are going wrong on the front-line due to a decision he/she made previously? What would be the repercussions if it was revealed?

Then I read a comment section from The Times, posing the question – are we swayed by deep-seated belief rather than hard evidence?   ‘We are irretrievably drawn towards the truth, right? Wrong: anthropological evidence suggests that far from being truth-seekers we are geared for tribal harmony and social cohesion.’

Margaret Heffernan’s book ‘Wilful Blindness’, and her TED talk ‘The Dangers of Wilful Blindness’  touch on these questions.  In the TED talk she talks of ‘Companies that have been studied for wilful blindness’, saying their employees ‘can be asked questions like, “Are there issues at work that people are afraid to raise?” And when academics have done studies like this of corporations in the United States, what they find is 85 percent of people say yes. Eighty-five percent of people know there’s a problem, but they won’t say anything.’

Assuming that it is a desirable thing for internal/external consultants to speak truth to power and to challenge beliefs what can be done to develop skills in doing so?

One way is to develop the humble consulting skills advocated by Edgar Schein. In his book, Humble Consulting (See his 3 minute video intro to it) he talks about levels of relationships with clients, saying ‘In working on messier problems and trying to get at what is really on the client’s mind and what is worrying him, I have found that the formal professional relationships that most models advocate will not get me there.  I have to overcome professional distance and develop what I am calling a Level Two relationship that is more personal, more trusting, and more open.’

Another way is, in the words of Ed Conway, author of The Times piece, mentioned above, ‘the best solution is humility.  Let’s spend a bit less time hectoring and a bit more time listening.’   Listening is also picked up by Edgar Schein in his book Humble Inquiry who says that rather than simply telling people what we think they need to know, practice  ‘the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person’

A third way is offered by Doug O’Loughlin who says speaking truth to power ‘doesn’t have to be confrontative, as we can do this by pointing out patterns or asking reflective questions. Three questions we can ask before sharing something that requires courage are: 1. Will saying this be helpful?, 2. Am I the right person to say this? ,and 3. Is this the right time to say it?’

Two books I’ve found helpful as I think about developing my skills in speaking truth to power (an ongoing effort) are The Power of Difference – from Conflict to Collaboration in Five Steps which has lots of practical exercises and Interthinking – Putting Talk to Work with practical ideas.

Another route I am exploring is how I receive and accept truth in relation to my power and what I can learn from my responses to it.  (Remember power comes in many forms – Gareth Morgan lists fourteen sources – so we are not only talking about truth to positional/hierarchical power though that is, I think the common application of the phrase),

Do you think speaking truth to power is possible or impossible?  How are you developing skills in doing so?  How do you receive someone speaking truth to your power?  Let me know.

Image:  Truth to Power

2 thoughts on “The (im)possibility of speaking truth to power”

  1. Thanks Naomi for your thoughtful sharing on changing beliefs, and that speaking truth to power.

    It does strike me that the term “speaking truth to power” feels risky. Every time I teach or write using that term is seems scary.

    You reference the amazing Ed Schein, one of his books is Humble Inquiry”. That seems so much more powerful, practical, and effective. So do sharing ideas, having the safety to speak differing opinions, etc.

    Most leaders I work with genuinely would like more feedback and more open discussions on ideas. Let’s help make this a norm in our organisations.

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