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Gut Check: Do You Make It Safe to Speak Truth to Power?

It’s been another wild and dramatic week at the White House, as U.S. President Donald Trump showed us once again that he is a leader who does not take kindly to being challenged.

This was never more evident than during a presidential press conference on November 7th, just after the midterm elections, when Trump sparred with reporters who challenged him on the vote results (the Democrats retook control of the House of Representatives), and some of the more controversial things he had said and done.

The President’s ire was particularly sharp with CNN reporter Jim Acosta, who asked President Trump about the characterization of the so-called migrant caravan—a mass movement of several thousand Central Americans headed towards the U.S. as an “invasion.“

The questioning clearly got under the President’s skin and he lashed out. Acosta did not back down and kept asking questions, which only fuelled Trump’s reaction. He referred to Acosta as a rude and terrible person, scolded him and told him to sit down. The day after, the reporter was barred from the White House.

If you haven’t seen the exchange between the two men, it’s well worth a few minutes of your time.

Now, the President’s reaction towards the press is no surprise. It has been a long battle that started during the run up to the 2016 presidential election and at the start of his presidency.

Still, I found this confrontation to be particularly negative, harsh and disrespectful.

Leaders must always remember that the people they lead need to be able to challenge their actions and behaviors. How you respond in the face of a challenge reveals the kind of leader you are.

It is the same dynamic whether you are President of the United States or an executive with a business organization. When senior leaders react negatively to being challenged—when someone is speaking truth to power—it erodes confidence in their leadership.

My team and I facilitate many sessions with extended leadership teams that typically involve the executive committee and their direct reports—the top two layers of leadership of an organization. Depending on the size of the organization, the group size can vary from 25 to 100 leaders, or more.

When running these sessions, one of the key behaviors I always look for is whether these leaders challenge one another by their willingness to confront contentious issues.

For the most part, these sessions are filled with great energy and lots of positive discussion. Yet, when a thorny issue arises, silence begins to fill the room and a lot of awkwardness arises.

What I also find is that rather than talk frankly in front of the group, some leaders will seek me out for sidebars to express their concerns. In these quiet conversations, I’ll hear about issues such as lack of clarity, low trust, or lack of support on a key initiative. My sense is that they are genuinely trying to be helpful by bringing the issue to my attention. But they are a bit surprised when I challenge them on the spot.

I respond by saying, “That’s really important. Why don’t you raise it so we can discuss it as an entire group?” Most say they can’t or are unwilling to do so, or that they will think about it. Most go back to their seats and carry on as if nothing happened. They are afraid.

I ask myself, why does this happen with such regularity among a company’s most senior leaders? You would expect that these people have the courage to engage in critically important conversations about crucial business issues. The fact is, they don’t or won’t.

What many leaders don’t realize is that when a thorny issue goes unaddressed, it will fester and distract people. It ends up slowing down execution and draining an organization of forward momentum. Eventually, organizational paralysis sets in.

They certainly can go back to their jobs and carry out their assigned duties, but those thorny issues are always there—lingering, weighing them down and impeding progress.

In The Leadership Contract, I write about the need for leaders and organizations to make it safe to have people raise issues and speak truth to power.

This is difficult because traditionally many companies have embraced a “shoot-the-messenger” mentality. Perhaps it’s rooted in senior management’s desire to hear good news only or perhaps it’s their insecurity. When someone speaks up and is then attacked, demeaned, or fired, it creates an unsafe environment.

In these scenarios, leaders immediately learn that if they stick their necks out and raise an important or controversial issue, their heads will be chopped off. So, everyone keeps quiet, and nothing changes. The hard work becomes even harder.

It’s also difficult for senior executives to raise issues. Listening to someone speak the truth or call you out on something that is not working is not easy. You have to learn to manage your own reaction in these situations.

I worked with one leader who tended to completely lose his temper when his leaders spoke truth to power. He couldn’t control himself. He would go on a rant and would even be verbally abusive. His leaders quickly learned that despite all the talk about creating an open culture, the reality was much different.

If this is you, you really need to work on your behavior. Jim Collins in Good to Great talked about the need for leaders to be willing to accept the brutal truth. But it isn’t always easy. I know from my own experience that it’s really tough to hear about things that aren’t working in your company when you’re giving your job everything you’ve got.

It’s important for all leaders to appreciate that when you do speak truth to power, that you should do it in a way that demonstrates accountability. You can’t simply come off as a complainer. You need to present your concerns in a constructive manner.

I know many CEOs who react strongly when leaders share information in a blaming tone or do it in a way that shows they aren’t stepping up to fix the situation. They are perceived as whiners and it erodes their credibility.

So, get tough on the tough stuff and start making it safe for your leaders to speak truth to power. When you do, you’ll tackle the real issues that may be holding your company back.

This week’s Gut Check for Leaders asks: Do you make it safe to speak truth to power?

 

 

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro is a speaker, consultant, executive at Lee Hecht Harrison, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Leadership Contract now in its third edition.

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