The Challenge of ‘Truth to Power’ for Leaders

While travelling around Australia working with senior and development leaders in a corporate development program, I have been asking the following question:

“How easy is it for employees to deliver potentially unpleasant messages to more senior people in organisations?”

Their reply has been effectively unanimous.

“It’s very difficult!”

“Why?” I have asked.

Reasons have varied but have included:

  • Fear of negative consequences to themselves should the message not be accepted
  • Fear of being perceived as a ‘negative person’ by senior managers which could negatively affect career opportunities
  • Past experiences within the same or previous companies where such messengers were treated poorly
  • Fear of being required to provide a solution for the issue

The core message is that people are reluctant to provide potentially negative messages to more senior managers.

I have then asked,”So let’s flip this issue around. From the perspective of your roles as leaders, do you see this reluctance to provide messages to senior managers as an issue for you?”

Once again I have received a unanimous response.


“Okay. What can you do about this challenge?”

The conversations have been remarkable. Participants have recognised the real and genuine challenge for many employees to provide potentially ‘negative’ feedback to senior staff.

The issue, known as ‘Truth to Power’ relies on senior staff to be aware of how their reaction to ‘negative’ messages can have an exponential affect on whether or not employees continue to provide them. This requires the senior managers to have an acute awareness of this challenge and to to err on the side of being more supportive of people bringing forward messages rather than less supportive (or worse being defensive).

Interestingly the leaders involved in the discussions I have shared above have been honest about the fact that for many of them they naturally have a defensive response to such issues when they are raised, yet recognise the damaging affect being defensive can have on future messages being presented.

The leaders have shared that it is important to acknowledge the issue and even if it is already known, to thank the employee for having the courage to raise the issue. They have also suggested that leaders need to ‘close the loop’ in terms of providing feedback to the employee about what has happened with their issue, particularly if the leaders initial response was to ‘look into it’.

It is totally understandable for people to have concerns regarding providing negative feedback to senior leaders. yet high performing teams and high performing organisations need to manage the Truth to Power challenge if they wish to reach their potential.

What are your experiences of ‘Truth to Power’ in the workplace and how have you managed this challenge from a leadership perspective?

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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