When No One Speaks the Truth at Work, You Face a Choice

I would be shocked if you cannot recall being in a meeting where someone in a position of authority was uttering something so fantastically full of crap that you thought you might choke. I would be even more shocked if the general response of the individuals present in the meeting didn’t look like aerobic head nodding. In general, people struggle speaking truth to power.

Accountability but No Authority:

A client of mine described a situation where the overseas leader rolled out his latest mandate for safety. Henceforth, the safety manager at each location is to be responsible for all accidents. If there is an accident, the safety manager is to blame.

My client asked about the authority and autonomy for the position. After a lot of double-talk, it turned out there was no authority vested in the role to mandate process changes or require certification or training. None. Zero. Zip. Nada. Zilch. Her interpretation was that she was to use moral suasion and hope for good luck.

She pushed and sought clarification. She asked how this approach could be effective without authority. The answers were the type that elicited the afore-mentioned choking.

No one else joined in asking questions. After the meeting, they, of course, described their shock at the boss’s mandate.

“Why didn’t you speak up?” she asked.

Mostly she heard mumbles and lame excuses.

Fear and Workplace Toxicity:

We all know why people don’t speak up in the face of managers spouting crap.

Fear.

People are afraid of a lot of things, including:

  • Being labeled as someone who is not a team player
  • Being labeled as a troublemaker.
  • Ticking off the boss.
  • Being fired.

Of course, if no one is comfortable speaking truth to power, the environment is horribly flawed and likely toxic.

The Costs of Failing to Speak Up are High:

History is filled with examples where blind obedience to authority ended in catastrophe. NASA is a poster child for this problem in an organizational setting. Think: Challenger and Columbia, both of which were examples where the failure to speak truth to power cost lives.

In my first job out of college, I sat in a meeting where a vice-president made what we all knew was a strategic blunder. “We will not compete in the low end of the market where there is no margin.” What he missed was the high-end of the market was disappearing right in front of us. And no, I didn’t speak up. But, I thought about it, even at that early age.

Fear of speaking up is always the issue.

Leader, You Own This:

As a leader, you have direct control over this issue. It is your sacred obligation to create an environment where no person is required to silently acquiesce to dumb a** management ideas.

You know you are doing your job if the people who work for you are comfortable standing up and telling you your idea is terminally stupid.

You owe it to your firm, your team, the person staring back at you in the mirror and your leadership soul to create an environment where the dialog is constructive, robust and truthful.

Don’t fail at this.

As the Employee, You Face a Choice:

However, when you are the employee on the receiving end of management malpractice, you have a decision to make.

Do you shut up and take it much as everyone else? Or, do you speak up and challenge the manager?

I’ve made a career out of the latter.

I once helped derail a merger by speaking the truth. I probably should have been fired.

I challenged a CEO on retaining an employee who embodied 100% of the opposite of the values we had worked sohard to form and evidence. Challenge is putting it politely. My adversary suggested I should be fired.

I took on the Managing Director of one of the largest firms on the planet. His comment: “That guy really pissed me off. I like him.

Sometimes it’s good to be lucky.

I flew across the planet on a few hours notice to personally voice my disagreement with what I viewed as a catastrophic strategic decision. They changed their minds to my viewpoint.

How Far Are You Willing to Go for the Truth?

To be certain, this is one of those existential issues. You must ask yourself, “Am I willing to die (be fired) for my position on this issue?”

For the right reasons, heck yes.

Defending core values are a good reason.

Pointing out value destruction is another.

Of course, for those slightly less lofty scenarios such as the mandate for safety managers described earlier, careful, polite questioning that subtly highlights the inanities of the manager’s position is appropriate.

It’s naive to think there aren’t risks from questioning corporate authority. The issue is, how far are you willing to go?

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Yes, there are risks and costs from speaking up when faced with bad management. The costs from not speaking up are higher. They include your leadership soul and your self-esteem for starters.

If the price of admission is the blind agreement to poor management practices, you cannot afford to work there for your own good.

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Leadership Books by Art Petty

By | 2017-09-06T21:08:19+00:00 September 6th, 2017|Career, Leadership|5 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

5 Comments

  1. Julia September 8, 2017 at 1:15 pm - Reply

    I like this article a lot! I think many staff/team members are hesitant to voice their opinions out of fear. Can you help distinguish the difference between the staff member who is voicing opinion, often in a group or in separate groups away from leadership that may be more of an attempt to circumvent change or sabotage new strategy because it is different from the norm?

    • Art Petty September 8, 2017 at 3:33 pm - Reply

      Hi Julia! Thanks for your comment. Glad you enjoyed the article. There’s no doubt some people develop sudden courage to criticize plans to change when they are out of earshot of the boss. It makes for great gossip for those people who feed on that stuff, however, it is completely unproductive or even counter productive. And yes, some individuals adopt a passive-aggressive approach to strategic change, because they perceive it is not in their best interest. A good manager works hard to help her team understand the rationale for change and get them involved in the process. -Art

  2. […] Art Petty provides a few anecdotes that illustrate the need to “speak truth to power.” Bad ideas must be challenged—that’s sometimes the value we add. 4 minutes to read. […]

  3. Deborah Simmons September 16, 2017 at 10:36 am - Reply

    Great artcle with straight-forwarded truth. My personal experience has been that many leaders in management will stress the importance of open communication while very few actually welcome the honesty. I have chosen to speak up with respect but with age comes wisdom so beware….there may be subtle consequences. Unfortunately it takes great strength of character to stand up and speak truth in a corporate society where upper management often doesnt look at favorably. I have been fortunate enough to have a great manager presently but remember that corporate holds the key ultimately. Still with character comes honesty, courage, and integrity always with respect. Thats just “my two cents worth”.

    • Art Petty September 16, 2017 at 10:38 am - Reply

      Deborah, your wisdom is worth a lot more than two-cents! Thanks so much for sharing. -Art

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