The silencing effect of power: helping leaders to listen so employees can speak up

July 7, 2017

Speaking truth to power is a two-way street, but one that is largely defined by senior leaders. Dik Veenman, Founder of The Right Conversation, explains how to give your teams to open up the forum of open and honest dialogue.

The silencing effect of power

Transparency and speaking truth to power are generally considered to be desirable attributes of corporate culture. Most leaders would claim to lead organisations where employees are free to speak up and to challenge those in more senior positions. They implicitly recognise that it is the absence of transparency and honesty across the hierarchy and between teams that gets in the way of strong performance. However, we all know that in many organisations it is not always safe to speak up, despite what leaders may say.

In a recent major 18-month study into speaking truth to power, by The Right Conversation and Ashridge Business School, the barriers to transparency were laid bare. The findings unequivocally show that ‘truth telling’ is not driven by processes (the default response of most organisations) but is something that happens in the moment and in the context of specific relationships.

Power listening to truth

Speaking truth to power is a two-way street. It requires people to speak up and, crucially, senior people to listen up. And herein lies the problem. The very words ‘speaking truth to power’ suggests that the problem (and therefore the solution) lies with those who don’t speak, rather than with those who don’t (or won’t) listen.

It appeals to the courage and moral conviction in more junior staff ‘to do the right thing’ and so puts all the risk on those people who have the most to lose. Powerful people simply don’t understand what it is like to feel powerless – especially in settings where people have been spoken at (rather than listened to).

Changing your truth to power culture: five questions every leader should ask themselves

Hearing the truth starts with senior people daring to be ordinary and to be interested in ordinary things – to ‘take the tube’ and rub shoulders with ordinary people. It also requires them to understand their impact on others and to have an iron grip of self-control when they hear things they may not like. Remember that junior monkeys watch every gesture and grunt of the silverbacks. If they see that the message doesn’t land well, they will think twice about raising it again in future.

Here are five questions to ask yourself about how you enable or hinder those who want to raise their ‘truth’ with you.

  1. Are you honestly interested in other people’s opinions?
    Before you conclude that you are sure you don’t have a problem in this area, it is useful to check by asking yourself ‘how do you know that you have a reputation for being interested in what others think?’.
  2. Have you considered how risky it feels for people to speak up to you?
    How do you tend to respond when challenged by different people? Do you welcome challenge or do you become defensive or dismissive? As the senior person you need to make sure you send the correct the signals when someone has built up the courage to speak up or challenge you.
  3. How aware are you of the political game being played?
    Politics is an inherent part of organisational life and personal agendas play out all the time in what we choose to say to one another. Enabling others to speak up means understanding why this person might be saying what they are saying (or why they are staying silent).
  4. What ‘labels’ do people apply to you and what labels do you apply to others?
    When we meet with others we label them – consciously or unconsciously. For example, we badge others as ‘CEO’, ‘consultant’, ‘woman’, ‘young’, ‘new’, ‘Head Office’, ‘sales’ and these labels mean different things to different people in different contexts. But inevitably they all infer levels of status and unwritten rules around who can be listened to and who can speak. Who do you listen to most?
  5. What do you do and say to enable others to speak?
    This is knowing what to do to enable others to speak up. It might include anything from reducing status difference by dressing differently, leaving your office to have some informal chats or carefully holding your own views back to ensure others get a chance to speak up.

In conclusion, hearing the truth starts with you as the senior person. If you are wondering why others aren’t speaking up more, first ask yourself how you may be inadvertently silencing them.

Takeaways:

  • Leaders need to empower employees at all levels to speak truth to power, breaking down the hierarchy to open up channels of communication.
  • Leaders and managers really need to ask themselves about how they currently enable or hinder their teams and whether they give them the opportunity to say what they really need to.
  • Senior people need a high level of self-awareness to understand how they may be silencing other teams, whether that’s through body language or an unwillingness to listen.

Find out more about how to improve your truth to power culture download: The HR professional’s guide to conversational leadership

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