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

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I would be shocked if you couldn't recall being in a meeting where someone in a position of authority uttered 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 wasn't aerobic head nodding. In general, people struggle to speak truth to power.

Accountability Without 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 aforementioned 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 High Cost of Failing to Speak Up

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 are examples of how the failure to speak truth to power can 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 that 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.

Employees Face a Choice

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 percent of the opposite of the values we had worked so hard 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?

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 is 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 in questioning corporate authority. The issue is, how far are you willing to go?

Yes, there are risks and costs to speaking up when faced with bad management. But the costs of 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.

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