Speaking truth to power

I am, still, pretty obsessed with The West Wing. I think I absorbed the show into my psyche. I don’t need to re-watch an episode to understand the plot discussion on The West Wing Weekly podcast – I remember it all.

One scene that’s been on my mind lately is the scene where Toby and the President test Will by dropping a bad note into a document to see how comfortable Will would be telling truth to power.

It doesn’t start out well…

Speaking truth to power is vital

Whether you’re a high-level political advisor talking to the President of the United States, or an account manager in a meeting with your boss, it’s important to speak truth to power.

First, let’s be honest. If the idea of telling your manager what you really think about their shiny new idea fills you with horror…well, there’s something wrong there.

Without clear and honest communication, there may as well be no team at all working with the boss. After all, the boss knows everything, right? What’s the point of diversity in a team anyway? Whatever idea the boss comes up with is clearly the right one, because it’s the boss who’s had it.

(What, no! Of course I’m not thinking of anyone in particular here…)

We need people with the courage to give their reasoned opinions about decisions, or we risk those decisions being wrong and coming with catastrophic consequences.

“This was your choice of a question?”

When the American President and British Prime Minister held their joint press conference on 27th January, BBC News ‘ Laura Kuenssberg, asked some pretty standard questions.

As many commentators pointed out after the fact, the questions weren’t really answered in a satisfactory way. But they didn’t have to be. The fact that someone had the guts to ask the questions became global news.

We (currently) have the freedom to ask difficult questions, to state our opinions and make counter-arguments. I’m not saying that we should go out of our way to be annoying and obstructive just because I’m right and you’re wrong.

We need to be honest about our opinions. We need to hold each other to account. Even if the other person is the person who pays our wages, or (yikes!) signs the executive orders that can change our lives.

The questions may not be answered, the arguments we make may go ignored. What’s important is that we asked the question. We put our point-of-view out there. We made someone else think.

Deference needs to die

When we defer to somebody’s better judgement, we abdicate ourselves of responsibility.

“If something goes wrong, blame that guy over there. He’s the one in charge.”

“She went to school for this, not me!”

By understanding and accepting that our words and actions have power, we can take back some of this deferred authority for ourselves. It’s part of the foundation of team work – you can’t have a good team without passionate people, confident in their own experience and judgement.

Our jobs may not involve us publicly holding the most powerful man in the world to account, but if we – and the businesses that employ us – want to reach our full potential, we have to risk the disagreements and debates that push us to understand and embrace different ideas and perspectives.


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