What is it is that prevents us from speaking truth to those in power: Fear of punishment? Fear of attack? Fear of being noticed? There are many reasons we don't deal in the truth, but great teams, whether a small company leadership, a public company board, or a political team, learn to speak and deal in the truth.
Knowing the truth about whatever situation you are in, or the problem you are solving, is absolutely critical, and yet so often people can't overcome their own barriers to tell those above them the honest truth. From my experience, here are five reasons that people don't speak up and some ways you can conquer these concerns for yourself:
- "I can't get to her"--If you've ever tried to reach a senior executive at a large company, you know how hard it can be to steal a few minutes of their day. They have layers of people protecting them and their time: a chief of staff, a fierce admin and a busy schedule that seems to create walls of unavailability. However, the best executives will make themselves available if you bring value. Some of these executives answer emails, sometimes they eat lunch in the cafeteria, and if you explain what you want to talk about in serious terms, their admin will make time for you. Be persistent and when you get your 15 minutes, be sure that you bring a solution or suggestion for improvement, as well as the problem you believe they need to know about. As a CEO there is nothing more frustrating than someone bringing me a problem, dumping it on my lap and having no part in helping me solve it. I'd still prefer to know, but it is certainly easier to hear a problem when it comes with a proposed solution.
- "It's not my place" -It's a self-limiter to believe that just because someone is in power above you in the organization chart that they are in some way better than you, or superior to you. Everyone has a role to play in the organization, and as human beings, everyone is equal. Some jobs carry a greater span of decision-making than others and a wider range of responsibility, but no one is "better" than anyone else. It's true that in some company cultures executives start to believe that they are better and look down on people they don't consider their "peers," but they are weaker for it and I can tell you from experience that when they are looking for a job later they forget that they once thought you were beneath them. Remember, you have a place and a voice; your perspective is valuable to power and you have a responsibility to share it.
- "He won't like it"--Some people don't like to hear bad news. They would rather you wrap everything in the positive, especially if they are conflict averse. You need to be aware of your audience's personality to figure out how to deliver a tough message, but don't be fearful. Fear will only prevent you from getting to the real problems and finding solutions. People don't get fired or shut out for telling the truth. If you are constructive and are doing a quality job, you will not be fired for expressing your opinion on a situation (and if you do, go and work for a better leader). Good leaders want to hear the truth, even if it's painful to hear. So, speak up! Have confidence in yourself and don't worry about whether the power player you are speaking with will "like" your message.
- "She should already know" - It's a myth than people in power have all the information. In an ideal world, they do, but in a fast-paced business, there is no way that your leaders knows everything. You can be sure leaders are talking with customers, sales people, your manufacturing leads and your engineers to try and getting the information they need to make the right decisions, but they never know everything. If you know something that you think they should know, tell them. If they were already aware of your concern, you just confirmed it. If they were unaware of your concern, you were able to bring value and help them be better leaders.
- "He shuts me down"--Getting shut down is the one obstacle I find the hardest to overcome. This is the person who raises his/her voice, gets aggressive and bullies to intimidate a speaker into silence. It's important to remember when someone does this to you that it's a tactic that has been learned because it can be effective. I have particularly seen men use this on women, but I have also seen men do it to other men. This often happens when someone raises a controversial point, particularly if she is "pushy," and a man will get angry as a way to shut down the conversation. If this happens to you, remember that others in the room probably do not respect this behavior. However, most people will not run to the aid of the person who spoke up, because they don't want to draw the anger in their direction. When you speak up and someone attacks you with anger, don't back down if you believe in the truth you are speaking. Stay calm and stick to your guns. You might be surprised to know that many people in the room agree with you.
In the end, one of the biggest reasons people don't speak up is not about their leadership, or fear, it's about being liked. I've always been outspoken and I am very conscious about speaking truth to power, but not everyone likes it. I have found that some people admire me for it, and when I leave a team (a company, or a board) those people will thank me for my contribution. But others think of me as too aggressive and controversial. For those people, it's a relief when I leave the group. It's hard not to care when people don't like you, but not everyone will like you, so get used to it.
In the end, I realized I can't please all the people, all the time. It's most important to be authentic, stop worrying and speak the truth. You will find that when you do, the people--the power - that matters will thank you for it.