How to speak truth to power and how those in power need to develop better listening
skills were the subjects of the first Decision webinar last week with author Professor
Megan Reitz, author of ‘Speak up’. Alpona Dutta reports.
Our day-to-day conversations define how we see ourselves and how we’re seen. The
choices we make decide whether we get promoted or overlooked, whether we steer clear of
trouble or become defined by our quest for truth.
This is the backdrop to the work of Professor Megan Reitz from Ashridge College who
speaks, researches and consults at the intersection between leadership, change, dialogue
and mindfulness. Professor Reitz is a popular TedX speaker and member of the prestigious
Thinkers50 group of global thought leaders. Her book ‘Speak-up’ has been described as a
powerful guide to navigating the power and politics of conversations at work.
Professor Reitz was guest speaker in the first Decision webinar last week, held in
conjunction with the MBA Association of Ireland.
She started her presentation by talking about conversational habits. Those concern what we
speak about and what we don’t, what we tend to not say and who we tune into and listen to
and whose voice we discount. Everybody tends to possess such habits.
She explained that these conversational habits have huge consequences. They define our
careers and they define our relationships. They are also fundamentally important for our
teams and organisations, and affect what gets said, who gets heard and who and what
She gave instances of companies that had ended up on the front page of the newspaper for
all the wrong reasons, simply because some people knew something and they weren’t able
to speak up, or if they did speak up they were gone unheard. Failure to speak up or a culture
that doesn’t facilitate listening can bring organisations to their knees, she noted. In her extensive global research, she said she had found good habits and organisations where it was completely acceptable to challenge the status quo. Such organisations were innovative and agile as a consequence.
However, the opposite was also the case all too frequently. In extreme instances, a failure to
speak up can cost lives, she noted. Organisations need to build courage and bravery and help people to speak up. Equally, they need to develop better listening skills.
Professor Reitz explained her TRUTH framework, devised during her research, that
identifies five key issues that need to be considered when we are choosing to speak up or not. She said that these criteria would enable people to change their habits and to question
why they have been operating on auto-pilot.
She briefly outlined the framework as following:
Trust: Have a level of confidence and belief that what I’m going to say matters. People will
not trust you unless they seem to value your opinions.
Risk: The consequences – ‘What happens if someone says it?’ Perceptions on risk have
been formed by us through experiences and memories around us which are mainly
associated with our relationships. We have to understand that others might find us
Understanding: Do you understand the politics of who says what to who? Figuring out the
politics, personal agendas and egos in any group can be difficult.
Titles: We label one another all the time, by gender, personality type etc. These labels are
fundamentally important in determining whose voice gets heard.
She spoke of levels of unconscious bias and noted that if people want to change these, they
need to understand these biases.
The last principle of the truth framework was How-to: How to invite people to speak up so
they feel safe. She states that in the book, there is a model about 5Ws- The why, who, what,
where and when.
Professor Reitz went on to explain the next important concept, something she called the
Speak-up traps. She cited three common reasons for these and asked the audience which of
these resonated with them.
1. Doubting ourselves: Leading to the Impostor experience or syndrome. This
manifest itself in a little voice in the head saying this is going to look really silly, what
are they going to find out.
2. Abdicate: Employees’ sense that ‘This needs to be said but it’s not my job to say it.
HR or manager will do something about it’
3. Talking to ourselves: If people do speak up, they speak at a time, place and
language that suits them rather than to the person who really needs to hear it.
Reitz recalled that during the course of her research conducted a survey among the
employees as to what would happen when they speak up an idea or a problem in the
In response, only 21% of juniors employees stated that they believed would be rewarded or
that there would be some sort of a positive recognition, while 44% thought that they might be
ignored. Senior people, on the other hand, were much more optimistic. She stated that the more senior is the person, the more optimistic is when they spoke up. She noticed that there was some kind of a bubble, the reasons being superiority illusion and the seniority labels that convey power. ‘When you have the right label, you hardly notice your power. It is when you don’t have the label, you notice the impact of it – advantage blindness. As managers, we need to remember we’re in a privileged position and our optimism is a little bit overstated’, she remarked.
The last part of the webinar focused on similar listen-up traps and highlighted three frequent
traps as to why people weren’t enabling enough to speak up well:
1. People in senior positions forget how scary they are.
2. How everybody has their own little list of people who fit and who don’t, whose opinion
counted and whose didn’t. She stated that everybody has such little lists in their
minds and that it is futile to get rid of such a list but rather we should reflect on why
this is the case and whose voice isn’t represented.
3. Sending ‘shut-up’ rather than ‘speak-up’ signals. Being aware of our body language
and whether it invites or impedes conversation is really important, she noted.
Professor Reitz then looked at how we can change habits and noted that in order to change
we need to become more self-aware and to wake themselves up from their auto-pilot. She
believes that if people are to change their conversational habits, they have to have the
capacity to disrupt their speaking up and listening up patterns.
Reitz concluded citing David Whyte’s famous quote, ‘The first step of deepening
conversational habits is to stop having the one you’re having now. You got to change
something. You can’t unless you have awareness on that subject’.
‘Speak-up – say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard by Megan Reitz
and John Higgins is published by FT Publishing.