Does Your Work Encourage Truth-Telling?

Kalen’s Story

I had a conversation with a corporate manager recently who was dissatisfied with the firm’s remote/in-office policy. The company mandated two days a week in the office but many people weren’t coming in with that frequency. This manager (let’s call him Kalen) often felt lonely coming in, as hardly anyone was there.

He tried gently cajoling and encouraging people to come into the office, but his encouragement hasn’t had much impact. He told me that his senior leadership basically said to not enforce the policy.

I asked Kalen what he was upset about: “Are you upset at people for not following the policy, or are you upset at leadership for not letting you enforce it?”

There were two emotions for Kalen: sadness at the loss of camaraderie and relationships with colleagues, and anger at leadership for saying one thing (having a policy of 2 days in the office) and doing another (not enforcing the policy). Upon reflection, Kalen realized that he was more upset at leadership than he was at his direct reports. If you’re not going to enforce the policy, why have it in the first place?

This kind of “hypocrisy” is extremely common in corporate settings, especially in America. It’s one reason why people are so cynical towards corporate leadership. I’ll discuss the emotional subtext of what is going on for leadership when they “say one thing and do another” in a separate post.

I challenged Kalen to express this dissatisfaction in his next meeting with senior leadership.

He refused.

Another impulse prevailed: “It’s safer to keep my head down.”

The Emotional Context of Speaking Up

Speaking up involves two emotions: fear and anger.

The impulse to speak up usually comes from anger. We see or experience something in the world that feels unfair or violates our expectations or values, and we get angry. Anger is a generative emotion—it spurs action. This action can be positive--passion is anger that has been channeled into something constructive. Anger makes us want to say or do something about it.

Put another way, being angry about something means that we care. Nobody gets angry about things they don’t care about.

Fear is the emotion that tells us to stay quiet. Fear evolved to keep us safe in dangerous situations—it’s the “flight” in “fight or flight.” Running away is not necessarily a bad thing! If fighting means we get killed (get fired in a corporate context), but fleeing means we survive, flight is the logical choice (unless a higher value compels us to fight despite likely death).

What Happens to Truth-Speakers

People who dare to speak truth to power are often killed. This has happened over all of human history in politics, it happens in families, and it happens every day in the corporate world. We have plenty of historical and personal evidence that points to “keeping one’s head down” being the correct choice.

Does that mean keeping your head down is always the right choice?

The Emotional Mind is Bad at Judging the Severity and Likelihood of Consequences

The fear you feel when you meet a mama bear and her cubs while hiking is a fear you probably want to listen to.

The social anxiety (fear) you feel when you think about talking to an unfamiliar person at a cocktail party is… miscalibrated. This doesn’t mean the fear isn’t real—if you can feel it, it’s very real—just that the fear’s cost-benefit analysis of the situation is way off.

Speaking up at work is somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t come without consequences, but it’s not nearly as dangerous as people assume it is.

The Upsides to Speaking Truth

There are three benefits to telling the truth in a corporate context:

1)      You will earn the respect of your peers. Chances are that if you are upset about something, many others feel the same way. If nobody else is willing to speak up, your colleagues will be grateful that you did.

Earning the respect of your peers doesn’t lead to immediate financial rewards, but it can lead to financial rewards eventually if you are willing to play the very long game.

2)      You will earn the respect of wise managers. These are managers who recognize that it’s impossible for them to be aware of every problem in an organization. They will be grateful to you for alerting them to problems that they didn’t see.

Lots of managers lack this type of wisdom.

3)      You will earn some self-respect for yourself. Everyone admires the person who goes for what they want, is undeterred by the criticism of others, and is unafraid of consequences. By practicing the contemplation of fear (getting fired), and acting anyway, you train your psyche to become that fearless person with the “devil-may-care” attitude.


1)      Noticing – what is a situation at work that makes you angry, but you haven’t spoken up about? What is the fear that you feel, balancing against the anger?

2)      Calibration – Are you part of an organization that welcomes speaking truth to power? What degree of wisdom has your manager displayed in this regard, whether in their willingness to receive your truth, or their willingness to speak their own truth to their leadership? If you speak up, what will actually happen to you?

3)      Action – If you are part of an organization that welcomes the truth, even if unpleasant to hear, can you find an appropriate time to speak your truth to power?

If you are part of an organization that does not welcome the truth, is this a horse that you really want to hitch your wagon to?

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