History is a great teacher.

Many times over, the history of humanity has been defined and redefined by the acts of speaking truth to power or by the silencing of an inconvenient truth.

Take the fall of the Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989. The concrete slabs of the wall crashing down marked the collapse of the Soviet-led communist bloc. At that moment, the balance between the propaganda that was used to silence dissidence and those speaking truth to power tipped in favour of the latter. As their voices emerged, so did the new world order.

Living is easy with eyes closed (J. Lennon)

Today’s GenX of that era will tell you that compared to when they first started their career a lot of progress has indeed been made in human consciousness thanks to global connectedness, freedom of movement, and dialogue.

We did create an environment for more voices, but certainly not all voices. It was not until the #metoo and Black Lives Matter movements that we understood how blind we can be to the suffering of others, to systemic injustices, and to the historical abuse of groups.

Through the #metoo case, we learned about the widespread use of non-disclosure agreements amongst the privileged and the powerful in almost every sector of society. You will find it in most places that allow a single source of power to flourish. From business to church, people are blocked from speaking about the abuse they experienced or witnessed.

The courage of change champions who speak truth to power often at their personal risk cannot be underestimated, and they must be protected and their contribution acknowledged. Being silenced by power is frightening. Taking on the entire system adds unimaginable trauma. With courage comes sadness as one has to reconcile with the fact that the world they lived in did not support their humanity in the first place.

Organisational leaders must be aware of what goes under their watch

Corporate and governance scandals tell a story that somewhere along the way, unnoticed by others, transparency came at a cost of threats, and integrity became infected and with insecurity. When power silences the truth, it means that someone is being prevented from speaking, removed from position, socially isolated, cut off from information, excluded from decisions, ridiculed for ideas, subtly intimidated, or plainly threatened.

Please take a moment to reflect on the following questions:

  • Could this be happening under your watch?
  • Could you be giving permission for this in any way?

What gives people power over others?

In addition to the most common factors of social dominance such as someone’s title, tenure, gender, age, and ethnicity, there are other characteristics in people and the way they operate that can intimidate others around them. Some examples:

  1. Being well-connected or appearing to be connected with influential figures
  2. Having access to knowledge, resources and finances
  3. Exuding charisma and social confidence
  4. Oracy skills; well-spoken, using complex language or vocabulary
  5. Ability to manipulate the dynamics of a group of people
  6. Tendency to confuse, sending multiple contradicting signals at once
  7. Tendency to over-adapt in the direction of power; no one knows their true authentic self
  8. So-called innocent jokes; sarcasm that signals a put-down or a threat (“Can’t you take a joke?”)
  9. Being unpredictable, hot/cold, passive-aggressive personality, you walk on eggshells around them…

The list is certainly not exhaustive. What would you add? Could your behaviour as a leader be unintentionally silencing someone around you?

What does speaking truth to power mean in practice? 

At the core of standing up to power is a desire to change things for the better. If you are speaking truth to power, you are communicating with those in a position of authority about something you believe to be morally right. Maybe you’re alerting them to ongoing organisational malpractice, gross misconduct, cover-ups, costly and short-sighted decision, or abuse. However right you are about the issue, speaking up to power carries a risk; if you upset it, you can expect the retribution to deter you from sticking your neck out again.

A lone wolf speaking up to power is a lost cause.

Is there a way to get the power to hear the truth being spoken?

The phrase “speaking up to power” can wrongly imply that it’s a matter of suddenly plucking up superhuman courage, kicking back the seat, and going toe to toe with the person in power.

But, for the power to hear the truth being spoken, an episodic outburst won’t suffice. A well-planned and well-intended influence can stretch over time and is best done with a support group of like-minded colleagues who advocate or, even better, join you in championing the cause. As hard as it sounds, influencing should start with trying to put yourself in the shoes of the person in power to access their perspective and figure out how you can manoeuvre the situation while appearing to respect the multiple perspectives of the truth.

Your organisation’s future relies on all voices being heard.

Does your organisation need a “Berlin Wall” moment to catapult it into a new world order and future-proof growth?

Will your organisation’s future be defined by the acts of speaking truth to power or by silencing an inconvenient truth? Or neither, as you dismantle the “us versus them” and set out to create an environment for all voices to be heard where the concept of speaking truth to power is outdated and unnecessary?

If it’s not already, how can your organisation become a psychologically safe place where the values of honesty and transparency are embedded in authentic and observable behaviours role-modelled by leaders, and where everyday culture honours discourse and curiosity that gives life to ideas and solutions to carry you through these times of upheaval and uncertainty?

Let’s hope for no more Berlin Wall moments as we put trust in boards and leaders to take an active role in shaping an equitable and fair future for all.