Telling truth to power

Read the latest blog from Mark Fletcher-Brown, long-time friend and collaborator of LGcomms

The first mistake people make in telling truth to power is in assuming that power is interested in hearing it.

Most powerful people who are on the brink of doing something unwise will know.

They’ll be looking for the opposite – reassurance that despite the risk of untoward outcomes, they’re doing the right thing.

If you’re not going to be that person, the reassuring one, then you may struggle to get face time.

But you may not have a choice. If it’s your role to be the teller of uncomfortable truths, then you’ll need to find a way.

First, before you take such a job decide whether it’s the right post for you. If you live to be liked or live in fear of losing your position, then temperament-wise, you may want to find something else. (Sometimes, though, mortgage demands dictate we should take on such roles, even though they may create unmanageable stress for us).

Second, understand what the person or people you are advising wants, their goals. If you are going to say to them, “Don’t do this” quickly follow your comment with “but to achieve what you want you could do that”. This only works if you know what they want.

Third, when it comes to the bit, understand the individual and the best way, time and place to get your difficult message across. Private space is probably best. You may be obliged to put your concerns in writing. If so, weigh up your words carefully. Worst case, you may have to defend them in public at some point.

Finally, think Worst Case. What’s the worst that could happen if you say nothing? Similarly, what’s the worst that could happen to you if you speak out? Keep those two points in mind as you weigh up your need, or desire or duty to give advice.

If you can help decision makers achieve their goals without contravening important norms, creating unnecessary risk or breaking the law, you may become that most valuable of people – someone whose views are sought out, respected and listened to.


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