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