What to Do When Someone Speaks Their Truth to Your Power

communication, leadershipSpeaking truth to power is something Americans believe in wholeheartedly. We love historical examples of the Founding Fathers sending a message to King George and of reformers like Martin Luther King, Jr. Americans revel in the stories of investigative journalists and whistle blowers who call out the hidden misdeeds of corporations and governments.

However, what do you do when you are the person in power on the receiving end of someone else’s truth? It’s not easy to hear a customer, employee or board member’s negative opinion of a decision you made or an action you took. However, you are not an absolute ruler. With leadership comes the responsibility to account for your decisions and actions and to deepen relationships by being trustworthy.

With that, here are some things to keep in mind for times when someone speaks their truth to your power:

1. Put your ego aside.

Most of your actions and decisions aren’t about you personally anyway; they are or should be done for the good of your organization.  For this reason avoid getting defensive because you took criticism personally. Sometimes, another’s critique is more about himself than it is about the action you took. One way to avoid getting defensive is to . . .

2. Listen for commitment

Be respectful, humble and vulnerable enough to hold the space for the other person to say what they have to say.  And as they speak, give them the benefit of the doubt by listening for what positive principles or values they are committed to in the end. By focusing intently for the core idea the other is communicating to you, it’s very possible you will be able to identify common ground.

3. Consider creating the position of “fool” or “devil’s advocate”

Your direct reports and other employees know where their bread is buttered.This can create a situation where they don’t speak up for fear of losing your favor or their jobs. Take a cue from indigenous cultures that have the role of the sacred clown and medieval monarchs who had court jesters or fools. It was their job to entertain and to enforce the rules of the group by highlighting what was proper and what was not, even by sometimes poking fun at others, including a King or Queen.

Alternatively, you can invite an outside observer, like a coach or consultant, to get a bead on the inconsistencies others notice but don’t voice aloud.

4. Create a bottom-up process for input and observations

Front line employees are often the first to see the disconnect between the company’s “walk” and its “talk”. A process that allows issues and opinions to bubble up and to be addressed could be as general as a survey, or it could include periodic forums where employees interface with leadership to discuss the impact leadership decisions make in practical terms.

Hearing the “truth” that someone else is living need not feel like an attack. Instead, it can be a great opportunity to find out how your intentions are translating into others’ reality.

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You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with women in leadership who want to have more positive impact within their organizations, by gaining greater focus, self-awareness, and influence with their teams. Learn more at: firebrandconsultingllc.com.