Speaking Truth to Power Is More Complex Than You Think - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #712

Speaking Truth to Power Is More Complex Than You Think

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A two-year research study reveals — for both those in power and their subordinates — the personal, political and social complexities involved in speaking truth to power.


Recent corporate scandals as well as the recognition that great innovative ideas can come from lower-level and front-line employees are two important reasons that the most successful organization are those in which people at all levels are not afraid to speak up. An organization’s employees must feel comfortable and safe enough to alert leaders to wrongdoing or, on the positive side, to come forward with radical but potentially groundbreaking ideas.

The rejection of rigid command-and-control leadership to more empowering and collaborative approaches may seem to address the issue of speaking up. According to a recent research study on “developing the capacity to speak truth to power,” however, believing that your open-door policy or Monday morning staff meetings are enough to encourage people to speak up is, to put it bluntly, simplistic. 

In the study, the researchers — Megan Reitz and John Higgins of the Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School — identify five intertwined issues that people navigate, either when they are subordinates who want to speak truth to power, or when they are leaders who want to encourage their subordinates and others with less power to speak up.

The five important issues related to speaking up are:

  • Conviction. To speak truth to power, you have to believe in the value of your opinions. If you’re in power, you must value others’ opinions.
  • Risk awareness. As a subordinate or lower level employee or manager, having a realistic understanding of the risks you will be taking is key. If you’re in a position of power, do you appreciate the risk that people feel they are taking when they speak to you about something that you may not want to hear?
  • Political awareness. Corporate politics is a major issue. If you want to speak up, it’s best to know who has the power and understand their priorities. If you’re a leader, it’s important to understand why people are saying what they are saying to you, and what they want you to do with the information.
  • Social awareness. Social awareness involves the labels attached to people in an organization, because of factors such as gender, ethnicity, personality, age, or role in the organization. People who want to speak up may feel, for example, that because of their gender or age, superiors will dismiss their opinions. Likewise, leaders must be aware of how the labels attached to them will impact how people speak to them. 
  • Judgement. Judgement involves the skill with which people speak up — i.e., knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. For leaders, judgement means knowing how to make it easier for people to speak to them, and perhaps more importantly, knowing who will tell them the truth.


Based on a two-year project that included in-depth interviews, organizational studies, workshops with groups of senior executives, and comprehensive research into the authors’ own experiences, the findings of this research provide some guidance breaking down the barriers to speaking up.

For those who want to speak honestly and fearlessly to those in power, the authors of the study recommend the following:

  1. Give yourself time to learn how to assess and successfully navigate the five issues described above. These issues may seem overwhelming at first, but with time, they can be seen as manageable.
  2. Ask yourself some key questions to clarify your position, such as: What is your message (in one sentence) that you want to be heard? Why should you be the one to speak up? Who needs to hear this message? 
  3. Think of speaking up as a skill to be developed over time. Start small, try different strategies with your leaders, and learn from these experiences.
  4. Training yourself in mindfulness, which is being “in the moment” and knowing and observing what you are feeling in that moment, will help you address the five issues.

These four recommendations can be adapted for those who are in power and want to enable others to speak up, as follows:

  1. Gain a true understanding of how the five issues impact those who may want to tell you the truth. 
  2. Ask yourself some tough questions, such as: What could happen if people are afraid to tell you the truth? Whose opinions do you truly value? Do you make others feel important, comfortable and significant? 
  3. Recognize that enabling others to speak up is a skill to be developed. Notice and learn from what you are doing that seems to encourage people to come forward, and what shuts them down. 
  4. Be mindful of your actions and behaviours and how they impact others. Are you displaying empathy? Can you understand the perspectives of others?

For progressive leaders who want open and honest communication, the researchers also emphasize the value of trusted advisors who will tell you the truth. 

The least effective leaders are those who are isolated and hear only what they want to hear. This study highlights the complexities involved in breaking the silence, but also offer a path forward to more honest and fearless communication to the benefit of everyone.



  Megan Reitz’s profile at Ashridge Hult International Business School
  John Higgin’s profile at Ashridge Hult International Business School
  Ashridge Hult International Business School Executive Education profile at IEDP


Being Silent and Silencing Others: Developing the Capacity to Speak Truth to Power. Megan Reitz & John Higgins. Hult Research Report (March 2017).

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Idea conceived

March 26, 2017

Idea posted

Jul 2018
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