Management Matters: Speak Truth to Power

‘Speaking Truth to Power’ is a Quaker principle that is both fundamental rejection of, AND a commitment to an alternative to violence. Today, it has become the phrase that means telling someone higher up in the organization or political structure something that they probably don’t want to hear.

Leaders who ‘kill the messenger,’ by berating or punishing the person who disagrees with them, points out areas of concern, or presents information that conflicts with their way of thinking can unconsciously promote the message – “be honest at your own risk.” When the messenger is effectively trampled, it usually guarantees that there will be no more honest information provided and they will be silence. It sends the message that there is danger if others try to do the same. Speaking truth to power can put a person at professional or even personal risk. There are plenty of people who believe that it should be avoided.

We have an opportunity now to embrace the message that everyone is responsible for power hearing truth:

  • The leader is responsible for creating an environment where people feel safe enough to be honest.

  • The truth-telling messenger has some obligation to clarify the intention that the benefit for truth-telling is for something that is larger than the messenger. Not only should the message contain the truth, it should also not cause collateral damage for those that are blameless. It should not be about the messenger’s self-interest and should not be delivered out of anger, spite, or manipulation.

  • The organizational culture has a big impact on the tolerance of speaking truth to power. Does the leader listen well before making decisions? Are open discussions encouraged? Are open ended and information seeking questions asked? What happened the last time someone spoke up?

It is also the case that those who are the truth tellers are not always right in their assertions. However, news can be heard even if it isn’t met with applause. Sometimes reflection and consideration are required. That requires some time to do that.

Challenging the ideas, initiatives, or goals of people at higher levels of power and authority can be a challenge no matter how forthright and candid a person is. Women in particular often wrestle with how best to speak up and challenge authority. Some may worry about making the other person feel uncomfortable, and want to avoid facing a backlash when speaking up forcefully and going against the majority or the leader.

The challenge is that no one, man or woman, will ascend into an effective leadership position if they don’t challenge others and the status quo. Rather than wondering if a challenge should be made, think about the person receiving the information and figure out how best to challenge them in a way that can be heard, understood, and valued.

More than BraverySpeaking truth to power involves more than courage. The best way to challenge someone who holds a higher organizational rank is to figure out the organizational culture and the person’s unique communication style.

Some ideas:

  • Use the receiver’s language and tactics. While it may not be the most comfortable for you, the goal is to create a message the receiver can hear. If they like metaphors, use them. If they value data, use it and cite credible sources. If they like bullet points with data, provide them.

  • Think about their counter-response. Given what you know about how they respond to information that is not welcome, how do you think they will react to yours? Sometimes you can diffuse some of the opposition by seeing it coming and being ready for it.

  • Toughen up. You may receive some criticism. You don’t have to respond to it immediately. Sometimes acknowledgement then and reflection at a later time works better. They may raise their voice. People often do when they get angry. Don’t let it scare you off. Their volume doesn’t change your message. Inhale deeply.

  • Colleagues can be a source of both support and power. Your coworkers can validate you, play devil’s advocate as you anticipate a reaction, and give you some alternative ideas based on their experiences.

  • Play the odds. Sometime you win and sometimes you don’t. Remember that the arc of justice in some organizations is a long one and you do not control all of the variables. If your timing is not the best, think about how and when you will return to this topic.

  • Accept your position. You are not the powerful one in the room. Sometimes that is exactly why it is important to speak up.

  • Have a backup plan. Do not overestimate or underestimate the risk you are taking. There may be consequences for speaking up but few people are fired for pointing out information that benefits the organization. If you are truly worried, have a “Plan B.’ Better to have a backup plan and not need it, than find yourself in a precarious position and wish you had one.

Not everyone is cut out to speak up to those in power and provide information that is unpleasant for others to hear. But sometimes, that is where your real power lies.

Nationally recognized consultant, trainer, author and professional speaker Joni Daniels is Principal of Daniels & Associates, a management consulting practice that specializes in developing people in the areas of leadership and management, interpersonal effectiveness and efficiency, skill- building, and organizational development interventions. With over 30 years of experience, she is a sought after resource for Fortune 500 clients, professional organizations, higher education, media outlets and business publications. Joni can be reached at

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