Speaking Truth to Power

Being silenced and silencing others: developing the capacity to speak truth to power

Megan Reitz and John Higgins

Context and research questions

“I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job” Sam Goldwyn (American film producer)

The imperative for transparency that drove this report was initially twofold. Firstly, from 2014 to 2016, the world watched as a number of corporate scandals brought household names into disrepute and in some cases to their knees. Examples included emissions at VW, accounting at Toshiba and doping at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). In all these cases individuals inside these organizations had information that, if it had been told to and listened to by those in leadership positions, might have mitigated the negative consequences, if not eliminated them altogether.

Secondly, competitive pressures are leading to an ever-growing need to innovate quickly and harness the ‘collective intelligence’ of employees. Yet those at the ‘top’ of organizations might be the least able and / or willing to hear the opportunities. They are inevitably isolated since they are in positions where people often report to them only what they think will be politically acceptable.

Adding to these two issues is the current debate on the ‘post-truth’ society. There are mounting concerns about ‘post-truth’ political and corporate realities being shaped by the emotional appeals and personal beliefs espoused by powerful and charismatic individuals who then go unchallenged.

Many current organizational interventions aimed at improving dialogue and encouraging ‘conversational leadership’ do not adequately attend to the implications of power dynamics. Consequently, suggestions such as leaders should have an ‘open door policy’ result in little change. 

Key questions investigated by this research:

This two-year research project has sought to explore the following questions:

  • What happens in the moment of choice of whether to speak up or stay silent?
  • How does an appreciation of the complexities of this moment inform effective leadership?
  • How might those in positions of power enable others to speak up?
  • How might individuals make more informed choices regarding speaking up?


Our broad methodological orientation is that of action research. We have interviewed over 60 individuals who hold senior positions, typically CEO and Chair, in industries as diverse as the NHS, banking, military and media, about their experiences of speaking up and enabling others to speak to them.

With eight of these we conducted a co-operative inquiry (CI) - a group meeting held four times over a year, exploring stories of speaking truth to power ‘out there’ as well as pausing to consider how speaking truth to power was being navigated in the moment ‘in here’, during the CI meetings. This, alongside one-to-one discussions with each CI member after each meeting, gave us insight into how perspectives deepened and changed over time according to contextual factors and how experiments in action were made sense of.

We engaged with six organizations more deeply, interviewing people at the top, middle and bottom and undertaking ethnographic study (observation and interviews inside the organization) alongside specific inquiry interventions, exploring the multitude of different perspectives coexisting within the same system.

Finally, our research practices also include first- and second-person inquiry. First-person inquiry requires us (the authors) each to look at our own experience, experiment in action and reflect upon that robustly. Second-person inquiry involves us researching with (not ‘on’) others who are also interested in the research subject. Over the period of nearly two years we have both journaled and helped each other to inquire robustly into our first person experiences as well as attended supervision to explore our experiences of ‘speaking up’ within our own working relationship. 

Findings and contribution

‘Speaking truth to power’ stimulated people to reflect on experience from two perspectives. The first related to times where the individual had themselves made a choice to speak up to others they regarded as more powerful, or had remained silent. The second related to times when individuals, recognizing they may be perceived as being more powerful in the eye and experience of others, had attempted to enable others to speak up to them, or had inadvertently or purposefully acted to keep others silent.

Across both of these perspectives we identified five intertwined issues, which are all navigated together when speaking up (or staying silent). The first two, the ‘conviction’ to speak or listen and ‘risk awareness’, the awareness of the consequences of speaking up (or being spoken up to), are put first as they decide, as one research participant noted: “Am I going to move or not move?”  The latter three, ‘political awareness’, ‘social awareness’ and ‘judgement’ relate to the skill of assessing the political and social conditions in a specific context, and then having the capacity, or ‘nous’, to judge how to say things, or invite things to be said.

We have developed, and present in this report, a practical diagnostic that allows individuals and groups to explore their capacities in each of these areas as they relate to the specifics of their organizational and personal context.

We have also identified a framework for exploring an organization’s overall truth-to-power culture (or cultures), which sets the context within which voicing ideas and challenge takes place.

Finally, while not wanting to trivialize or over-simply the highly situation specific reality of speaking or not speaking truth to power, we identify a number of distinct areas of development activity for both individuals and organizations. We suggest these activities may enable more conscious, choice-full and transparent decisions to be made about speaking up and hearing others. This has never been a more pressing imperative.

How do I find out more?

Join us for a free webinar which will summarize this research. 

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