Time to Talk Truth to Power: Here’s What To Do

Summary: Learn how to speak up and be heard by someone in power. The “Four B’s” make it a slam dunk every time.

Dear Dr. Sylvia,

Did you ever think there would be a big push to consider employees’ mental health at work?

Don’t get me wrong.

I know it is essential to bring, as they say, your whole self to work.

I got thinking, what the heck does that mean?

From rereading your book Don’t Bring It To Work, I understand that old emotional, social, and patterned responses can block progress.

However, I believe that most of the books and courses right now only have superficial tools to guide us when talking truth to power.

Talking Truth to Power Takes Courage and Right Communication.

Even writing the words “truth to power” makes me feel powerless.

Crazy huh?

Here’s the dilemma.

My boss asked those on the senior leadership team to have one-one “mutually honest” feedback sessions with her. Yikes. I need help.

Advice, please.


Staying Silent

Dear Staying Silent,

You are being given a gift.

Yes, in the current environment, there is a campaign to help employees find a better way of relating and getting help if needed.

The boss-employee relationship is due for significant changes.

Think about “the great resignation,” a phrase first used by Prof. Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University during a Bloomberg interview in 2021. This was when many employees began prioritizing flexibility and remote work options.

Next, consider the “quiet quitting” trend that has made rounds on social media.

This means “quitting your job without resigning” and working for only the required hours, staying in your lane (silo) with no collaboration beyond that, and doing the bare minimum.

Talking truth to power is forced into the open due to social media.

This has gone on for eons. Now it has a formal name.

Add to this “quiet firing” when an employer lets go of or pushes out an employee without being direct. This could be reducing hours or ignoring them until they feel “rendered invisible” and leave on their own.

Some leaders, hopefully, your boss, want to be part of the future of work. That is why “mutual feedback” sounds like a good step in the right direction.

The future of work is becoming a more level playing field.

I bet you realize that most in the C-suite rarely ask for feedback from their direct reports.

What an excellent opportunity for you to talk truth to power.

First, please see this discussion as part of a relationship system.

Not only do you have an opportunity to learn some excellent communication skills. That’s a win for you.

Then, there is also the opportunity to help your boss gain new perspectives—a win for her.

And, of course, as you both learn about systems and power, there is a win for the organization.

As you understand the dynamics involved in talking to a person of power in your life, you can get the results you want for now and future success.

Systems thinking is the future of work.

Let’s start with a systems approach to the big picture of talking truth to power.

Firstly, what words come to mind when you think about having a difficult conversation with your boss? When I ask teams I coach, the words that pour from their mouths are “Scary, nerve-wracking, tense, nauseating, fearful.”

Now, think of yourself as an eleven-year-old. What words came to mind when your parent sat with you for a difficult conversation about your behavior or report card? I bet the exact terms apply.

Why is it scary to tell the truth, especially to power?

Truth to power for kids can mean punishment.

When you’re a kid, you risk punishment. And at work, there’s always the fear of termination.

A survey of 1700 corporate executives and employees was administered to discover the qualities that make a good boss and a good employee. One of the surprises was that 80% said the most important thing a boss can do is ask for employee feedback.

However, that study did not ask how employees feel about giving feedback to their boss. They say it’s “Scary, nerve-wracking, tense, nauseating, fearful.”

Organizations encouraging open communication and honest feedback can enrich relationships and build trust. However, that’s not always the case.

For example, part of the reason so many would rather lie on a bed of nails than tell the boss what they think is that there hasn’t been much training about having these complicated discussions.

Be uncomfortable, not fake, when talking truth to power.

I surveyed what employees hate to discuss with their bosses. The top concerns are compensation, time management, office politics, feeling bullied, poor team collaboration, favoritism, avoidance of conflict, and denial of difficulties.

And if I had a nickel for how many times I’ve heard, “He or she just doesn’t hear me,” I’d retire very wealthy.

Here are the basics for talking truth to power:

  • Be Specific: “I need to discuss getting an assistant by next month.” Rather than “I’m overwhelmed with the workload.”
  • Be Detailed: “I have several reports (name them) you expect, and I want you to have the vital information you’ve requested. Without some additional help, I cannot fulfill your request.” Rather than “I don’t want to mess up and end up having to redo it all and waste time.”
  • Be Factual: “I did tell you (name times) I would need help on this project. However, I don’t think I was clear and forceful enough.” Rather than “I always say yes, and then I realize there’s too much on my plate, and I’m working nights and weekends, and it still isn’t getting done.”
  • Be Immediate: “I need a commitment from you to get me some help so we don’t end up angry with each other.” Rather than “I hope you will do the right thing and get back to me.”

The 4 B’s offer communication methods for truth-to-power talks.

When you frame your words with the 4 B’s above, you eliminate judgment, blame, or attack that would deter a positive outcome. Practice this, and let me know what you would add to the list.

I believe that the boss-employee relationship is in for significant changes.

For those who want to stay in a great job, advance, and become a leader in the organization, consider my award-winning online program, Total Leadership Connections, to keep going and keep growing.

Here’s to your success.

Sylvia Lafair

PS. Stress over the top? Become a Certified Stress Mastery Coach. For more information, contact us here.

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Sylvia Lafair

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