October 18, 2011 Business, CEO, Culture, Thought Provoking

Is speaking the truth in your best interest?

Hey, boss! Remember how you asked me what I really thought? Well, I thought about it and decided I really don’t think it’s in my best interests to tell you.  In my role it has always been critical for me to tell my boss the truth and it isn’t always pretty and I do provide suggestions, recommendations and solutions during these times.  However, I will admit it has sometimes been at my own peril.  Would I go back and change it?  Not on your life!

In a recent survey almost half the professionals surveyed (48%) indicated this is precisely the reason they keep from speaking their truth at the office much of the time. Note, this wasn’t a scientific survey, but 155 respondents’ gave pretty consistent answers that look like meaningful indicators as you plot how to manage your employee base to stellar business success.

And this data is consistent with a recent study by Corporate Executive Board with even scarier results.

  • Companies whose employees were afraid to speak up suffered 5.8% lower total shareholder return than those with cultures that encouraged open communications.
  • Where fear was more prevalent, fraud and misconduct were higher.
  • 59% of companies surveyed said that $1 million worth of harm would have to be at stake for employees to share honest negative feedback (29% said $10 million).

Why? You make my life miserable for weeks, that’s why.

Eighty-two percent of respondents to the first survey said at some point in their careers they’d been penalized for speaking their truth, penalties ranging from being passed over for promotion, pushed aside and fired. Get this, 70% said it was the boss’ fault because his/her ego got in the way. So even if you’re not a jerk, your employees are probably walking on eggshells around you anyway because their last jerk-boss made them wary.

Want scientific backup for this point? CEB found it was a “fear of retaliation” was the most important driver for employee discomfort in speaking up.

So what? I’m outta here, that’s what.

Many people report that being penalized for speaking their truth made them quit or seek employment elsewhere. Speaking truth isn’t just another career skill — like negotiating a salary package — it really hits people at their core and is related to feeling like they’re being true to themselves as human beings. Seventy-six percent said when they withheld their truth they regretted it later. So if almost half your employees aren’t comfortable speaking their truth to you, and the majority of them regret having to bite their tongues, it’s logical to think that this issue is contributing to the increased levels of job dissatisfaction and loyalty we see reported lately.

There was also some indication that women are rewarded less often for speaking their truth than men (68% and 82% respectively). Sure, there may be many reasons for that, but if you have a goal to reach the 30% tipping point of women in leadership at your organization so you can reap the market rewards, then you might want to look into whether this issue is driving some of your best women leaders away.

Sure, I’ll listen if you’ve got a plan.

We all know that plenty of people think they’re speaking their truth when they’re really not. Speaking truth to power – the skill that will help your employees tell you what’s really on their mind in a way that is productive and meaningful – is a career minefield judging by the high numbers of people who’ve experienced severe penalty (82%) and high reward (72%), but an important one if you want to make your employees feel valued and find out what they’re not telling you. For that matter, are YOU good at speaking truth to power? Your truth matters too and the CEO or the board should want to hear what you have to say just as much as you need to hear from those below you.

Speaking truth to power effectively means you have to resist buying into our cultural myths about truth-telling – that the truth that matters most is the first thing in our minds or hearts – no matter how deeply felt – and that the opposite of True is always False, for example. You and your employees need to learn to speak truth to power effectively and work to make it part of your corporate culture. Only by focusing on it will all the pains of past penalties be overcome in your workspace.

What do you think? What’s your personal experience with speaking truth to power? Have you been penalized? Rewarded? How does that factor into your willingness to speak your truth in your current situation? Come on – we all have a story!