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When to Tell a Leader What They Need to Hear, Not What They Want to Hear


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Under what circumstances do you tell a leader what they need to hear when everyone else is telling them what they want to hear?


Organizations by their very nature distribute power in an asymmetric way.  Those at the top of the hierarchy typically have the power to create or foreclose opportunities for subordinates.  Those lower down in the hierarchy have little power over such decisions.  This power asymmetry creates incentives for subordinates to avoid conflicts with higher ups, to hide information that could lead to conflict, and, frankly, to tell superiors what they want to hear.  Yet some people on some occasions choose act against these incentives and are willing to speak truth to power.   When does it make sense to do so and why?

Deciding when to tell a leader what they need to hear when others are telling them what they want to hear is an ethical dilemma.  In researching a response to this question I spoke with my colleague, Lamar Pierce, who is an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School and co-teaches the course Ethics in Action: Leading with integrity at Brookings Executive Education.  Our conversation lead me to conclude that your decision should be based on three factors that I call:  View, Value, and Verify.

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View:  When considering speaking “truth” to power it is important to first figure out what the truth really is.   You (and each of us) have a particular view on an issue, situation, or decision based on your information, knowledge, and motivations that combine shape your view.  All too often a point of view is necessarily narrow—one might even say biased—if you have not actively sought out and invested in thinking about and understanding other points of views from which to look at the issue.  Indeed, biases such as confirmation (looking for evidence that supports only your position), self-interest (focusing on those aspects of the situation that affect your interests), and self-justification (emphasizing those insights that justify your position and role) frequently undermine thinking hide the real truth.  Before speaking truth to power it is important to first invest in thinking to discover the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

One way to seek out the truth is to speak to others who hold views different from your own.  Engage them in open-ended questions to understand how they see the situation.  (In other words, don’t ask leading questions like “You see it my way don’t you?”)  Only by trying to view the situation from multiple and different points of view and understanding their motivations will you increase the likelihood that you can comprehensively formulate the truth.

Value:  If you are confident that you have zeroed on the truth, you need to ask yourself two vital questions.  Is the ethical dilemma a moral issue for you?  If so, then your choice about speaking up is likely clear so I will focus only on the next vital question.  Will the benefit to the organization that comes from raising the issue today diminish the benefit you can provide to the organization over the long run?  Speaking truth to power can create great value for the organization if your conversation produces a useful outcome.  But speaking up comes with risk—if your conversation is not effective you may harm your ability to influence outcomes in the future, which still could happen even if your conversation is effective. 

Ultimately, if you are like most people, you want to create value for your organization not just for today but also in the future.  It is important to assess the short and long term consequences of your conversation with the leader.  If you are confident that your reputation and trustworthiness (for more on trust see “Ask EIG: Are You a Leader with ‘The Goods’?” March 22, 2013) will grow by telling the leader what they need to hear, then doing so will allow the organization to benefit from your leadership now as well as in the future.  If, however, your conversation backfires then your reputation and trustworthiness may be harmed, which diminishes your ability to make future contributions to the organization.  Consider speaking truth to power when the expected gains outweigh the expected costs to the organization.

Verify: If you are going to speak truth to power, you have to figure out what you are going to say and how you will say it.  Blurting something out, being unprepared, and feeling the emotions of the moment will likely to lead to failure.  All too often a messages based on emotion or that comes from isolated thinking are fundamentally flawed.  How can you verify what you plan to say so that your communication is clear and precise and that it accurately and logically conveys your ideas.     

Several processes can help you verify the narrative and words you use.  For instance, take some time, perhaps a few days, to allow any emotions to settle down.  Write down a description of the situation, evidence to support your description, as well as your response.  Then, share these writing sand thoughts with several trusted advisors.  Ask them for their general reactions but also explore if they can think of better ways or better language to convey the ideas.  Connecting with at least three trusted advisors will help you verify that your communication is likely on point with appropriate language.

In summary, before speaking truth to power I recommend that you:

  • view the situation from multiple perspectives to assess the truth,
  • value the short-run versus long-run effects of speaking up, and
  • verify with others the message and language you plan to use. 

Duce a mente (May you lead by thinking),

Jackson Nickerson

Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Associate Dean and Director of the Brookings Executive Education, and a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. An award winning researcher and teacher, Jackson specializes in leadership, strategic and critical thinking, leading change, and innovation. While in a prior life he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he now advises government agencies, not-for profits, and for-profit businesses on ways to improve performance. He is the author of Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World.

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