Speaking Truth To Power

I'm watching the NHL play-offs again, much to the dismay of my wife and daughters. They are crestfallen to learn that the playoffs run to June. Every night.

Not long enough for me, I say.

One thing I have been watching with great interest is the shot-blocking prowess of Hal Gill, the Montreal Canadian's rear-guard. "No Skill Gill," a nickname that I have for the 6'7'', 250 lb., and graceless defenseman is a misnomer.


Mr. Gill (#75), pictured here inspecting Sidney Crosby’s right glove, actually possesses some vexing moves on the ice, including throwing his massive carcass in front of some of the hardest slap shots in the business. Think of it. A piece of vulcanized rubber hurtling at 160 miles an hour, fired at point blank range.

Now picture yourself actually volunteering to take one for the team by dropping in front of that puck with enough precision to stop it without injuring yourself. I've dropped in front of a few pucks in my day and there's only one word to describe the experience: Ouchie!!!


Blocking shots is a thankless job. It does, however, win games. It requires three things-bravery, anticipation, and timing. Watching Mr. Gill and his teammates shutting down the Washington Capitals' league-leading offense and winning the series got me to thinking about this month's topic: speaking truth to power.

I know. Free association is a marvellous thing. Paging Dr. Freud!

I have been a consultant for over thirty years and have learned some things about speaking truth to power that I think are worth passing along. This is perhaps one of the most difficult duties that we have in support of our clients, teams, organizations, communities, and even countries.

It can be a little like blocking shots. Done well, it adds a tremendous contribution to the team. Done poorly, you can lose your teeth.


Social Lying

Speaking truth to power is a term that appears in many traditions of the world, including Muslim, Jewish and Christian. Perhaps, it is most associated with the Quakers. It also has its antecedents in secular moral and ethical philosophy.

James R. Mitchell, in a brilliant speech given to new executives entering Canada’s public service, outlined the responsibility to advise your superiors this way:

  • Not to tell people what they want to hear, but rather what they need to hear;
  • Not to hide the facts but to bring them forward, even if they run counter to received wisdom, or someone’s preferred course of action;

Not to make your boss comfortable, but to equip him or her to do the right thing even if that makes them uncomfortable."

Speaking truth to power means having the cojones to provide information and advice to authority figures, especially when it may oppose what they want to hear.

In my experience, there are far too many people telling their superiors or clients exactly what they want to hear. To me, that is flagrant disloyalty and cowardice. It is a form of lying. Lying is a control mechanism and is a means to avoid discomfort, stay out of trouble, and manipulate the responses of others.

Four Practices of Truth-telling

Despite what we may perceive as a career-limiting move, speaking truth to power can be accomplished in a way that not only protects the relationship with authority, but also actually enhances it.

Like the noble Mr. Gill, you must practice if you are going to earn a birth on the all-star team of your organization or community. Here are four things to keep in mind:

1. Heart in the Game

Don Cherry (the handsome devil below) is the irascible host of Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. Please don't ask me what he’s wearing. Cherry calls shot blocking "having your heart in the game." That same metaphor applies to speaking truth to power.


Having your heart in the game means having the commitment and the courage to "say what's so when it's so." Both your heart and your backbone are required to take a stand for truth. "Even if you are a minority of one,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi, "...the truth is the truth."

Bet you never thought you’d see Gandhi, Hal Gill and Don Cherry in one article!


2. Set Context

Setting a context for your message educates other people about why you are bringing forward the truth as you see it, the contribution you are trying to make, and what you hope will occur as a result.

It's necessary background information that helps others get onto the same page by creating a common perspective so that your message can be received and understood.

For example, I could say, "You're doing the wrong thing!" My boss or client would probably respond poorly to that declaration.

Or I could say, "I have some concerns I'd like to share with you about some of our current practices based on some research I have been doing into Corporate Liability. I want to draw this to your attention because of the damage that we could face should we be in violation of conflict of interest legislation. I'd like to take you through what I've learned so far so that you can be apprised of what I believe to be the risks."

An employee like that is worth his or her weight in gold. He or she is obviously committed whole-heartedly to supporting the success of the team. It would take an idiot to object to such an approach. And we shouldn't be hanging around an idiot in authority for too long.


3. The Three "Rights"

In The Four-Fold Way, cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien identifies three critical components of good communication: right timing, right placement, and right content. She explains:

"Communication that carries integrity always considers timing and context before the delivery of content. So often we know exactly what we want to say, but we do not consider whether it is the right time or the right place in which to deliver the content of our communication."

The truth spoken at inappropriate times can cause embarrassment for the authority figure. Not good.

What is the best practice in this circumstance? One to one, face-to-face communication is the most appropriate approach that will not only help ensure a successful exchange but aid in creating trust in the relationship.

Right placement means that you have considered the environment for your message. Truth telling isn't about shock value. It's about choosing the appropriate venue with the appropriate people to say what you see or know to be true.

The content of the message must be carefully considered as well. What are the messages that are most important to deliver? Also consider the delivery of the content. Being judgmental or strident undermines credibility and creates defensiveness. A calm and measured delivery, even though we may be nervous, always helps the other person relax, listen and reflect on the implications of what you are telling them.


4. When It's Over, It's Over

Once you have made your case and a decision has been made, move on. Unless crimes are being committed or lives are in jeopardy, you have done your duty by speaking truth to power.

A client puts it very succinctly: "In my organization you can have your say but you might not get your way." Ultimately, the decision we are seeking may not be the one that authority makes. We must be prepared that things may not go our way and have the maturity to accept that without bitterness or rancor. Stephen R. Mitchell makes a very good point here:

"Take the opportunity to be heard, and then live with the decision. If you keep on fighting after the issue has been decided, you will find that you are left out of the discussion next time, because people will see you as someone who cannot separate themselves from their point of view."

Speaking truth to power is a requirement for good decision-making and strong organizations. Leaders at all levels must be willing to step up to the responsibility of truth telling.

Authority figures have a most important part to play here. Your job is to build an organizational climate where the truth is welcome.


Posted on May 1, 2010 .