A Safe Place for Truth to be Told
James O’Toole has been a distinguished voice in the areas of business ethics and leadership for nearly three decades. With several books under this authorship and a resume that includes several roles served in federal leadership, O’Toole not only has classical education but a wealth of experiential learning. A Social Anthropologist by training, O’Toole addresses the roots to several common leadership and organizational health challenges seen in all sectors of business. In the article “Speaking Truth to Power: A White Paper,” O’Toole addresses the challenge of speaking truth to those with positional power and the implications that result. O’Toole utilizes examples from both the ancient past and the present to paint a picture of organizations that welcome candor and those that oppositional thought and opinion a threat to power. Ultimately, O’Toole argues for organizations to foster cultures that welcome feedback and transparency, allowing employees at all levels of infrastructure to engage in the process.
There were several connections I made between O’Toole and the other readings:
- The ability to set aside instinct to find the actual facts and to want to know them – Factfulness
- The ability for a leader to own when they are wrong, or correct a mistake – Being Wrong
- The ability to embrace doubt and questions – Maps of Meaning
- The necessity for leaders to be differentiated in order to encourage and truly embrace honest feedback, for the ultimate good of the organization – A Failure of Nerve
I also appreciated O’Toole discussing the role of integrity in the process. He states, “Indeed, integrity by and of itself is an insufficient virtue…. Yet, at the same time, all other virtues are insufficient without integrity.” He goes on to list the six criteria that turn truth virtuous:
It has to be truthful
It must do no harm to innocents
It must not be self-interested (the benefits must go to others, or to the organization)
It must be the product of moral reflection
The messenger must be willing to pay the price
It must not be done out of spring or anger.
This list made me think of 1 Corinthians 13 and Paul’s discussion on the tangibility of love. The other story brought to mind when reading through this article was that of Esther. Her courage and willingness to lose her life, speaking truth to the king in order to save the Jewish people from destruction. Contextually, Esther was risking her life by speaking when not first summoned, and even more so, she was a female pointing out the error of thinking for a powerful male. I am left with the challenge of wondering if I would have done the same if I were in her position.
As a female in leadership, I wish I did not identify with the article as much as I do. While over the years I have had wonderful, empowering male and female bosses, I have found few organizational cultures with senior leadership in which “the presence of excessive amounts of testosterone almost always leads to a loss of hearing” is not true. I have witnessed and experienced organizational unhealth when there is an imbalance of representation at senior levels of decision-making, generally fostering an environment of silent frustration that ultimately loses significant talent at all other levels. When people do not feel that they have access to speak truth and/or any truth would be dismissed or mis-categorized, the motivation to work with excellence for the organization diminishes. While I have had significant favor in my current position and feel privileged that I hold positional power with top decision makers and am encouraged to speak boldly and honestly, I find myself just as frustrated when patterns of unhealth are perpetuated by either inaction or the active choice towards toxic behaviors and culture. What I continually reflect on in my own leadership is:
- In the sphere of influence I have, am I fostering health, regardless of organizational culture?
- Am I positioning my employees in such a manner that they are thriving in their strengths, ultimately benefiting the team and organization?
- Am I encouraging honest discussion, feedback, and challenge?
- How am I responding when I disagree with feedback?
Recently, I had a new hire question a partner organization that we have been working with for years. The employee was challenging if the organization was following best practices with community development philosophies, doing more harm to local communities, and the like. In that moment I knew regardless of my personal feelings towards the organization, I needed to make their questions land in a safe place. I asked for further clarification, provided some context and initial reasonings behind the support of the organization, and asked them to present me with additional information to review (articles, audits, etc.) for further consideration. The employee felt heard and valued and I knew in that moment my self-differentiation had been developing. I realized in that situation that I appreciated the challenge and I don’t know that the leader I was several years ago would have nor would have responded in the same manner. I hope that as I continue to grow in my leadership, both abilities and positional power, that the spheres of influence I have will continue to be ones in which candor is encouraged, transparency reciprocal, integrity is evident, and individuals are valued for who they are and their contribution to the whole.
 O’Toole, “Speaking Truth to Power: A White Paper”
12 responses to “A Safe Place for Truth to be Told”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Ms. Kayli: The four connections with the four different books you list at the beginning of your post are right on. Way to boil it down succinctly. I like how all these books we have read for the past 2 1/2 years are coming together in our minds. Jason has picked these books wisely and there really hasn’t been one book that I have not enjoyed. This white paper by O’Toole was great. Nice post with great insights.
Kayli, I would hire you in a heartbeat! Better yet, I would work for you in a heartbeat! You are an exceptional LEADER and I want to affirm what I have seen and heard in you over the course of this program. I am sorry you have to suffer as you do as a “woman” in a place of leadership, but I am thankful you get to forge the path and set an example to many, including myself. Keep it up.
Thank you, Eric. It would be so fun to work together at some point in the future!
Kayli, your personal story and current situation made this a great read beyond your usual great content. Thanks for you honesty in saying you know first-hand the reality of toxic leadership that does not create an “everyone culture.” Have you ever found yourself in a position of supporting the organization because of your position but not supporting the organizations position/decision? What did you do with that?
Hi Roy: I would say this is a tension that I sit with often. What I have had to dive into more than anything over the years is if I am still being asked by the Lord to serve in whatever spot I am or if it is time to move on. I speak to my leadership often about how I would consider myself a critically loyal person – I will be critical, but for the purpose of pursuing health and excellence in what we do. Sometimes that can be misunderstood, especially when cultures are toxic, but ultimately I am responsible to the One and not to any man.
I love how you introduced us to James O’Toole. It was really well written. You are so correct that it is rare to find senior leadership that is secure enough to receive the feedback from subordinates, especially women. I am grateful that my 1st supervisors really believed in me. It has contributed to an inner strength to stand in less supportive environments. Have you found ways to support your subordinates when the organization’s position is out of alignment of their expressed purposes?
Hi Denise: What I have found that works is to be as transparent as possible and ask hard questions. I’ve found that simply going into individual or group meetings and asking if there are initial questions and offering space for processing changes everything. At times, I can offer additional perspectives and insights that I’m aware of, but more often, I have found that just making room works best. When the decisions are not mine, the consequences, although felt, are also not mine to hold. Again, I am responsible for cultivating health in my sphere of influence to the best of the ability and discerning how I ought to speak or move from the Lord.
Hi Kayli…thank you for your thoughtful post and interaction with O’Toole’s concepts, particularly the personal reflection and application! It seems in your current position you may serve as a voice that bridges between top decision makers and employees that don’t have positional power. What from O’Toole’s concepts are you finding of particular help when you are now needing to speak truth to power, to the decision-makers among whom you sit, especially if you are sharing feedback that come from employees that don’t have access to these decision makers?
Elmarie: Thank you for the question and interaction with this post. I think right now, his concept of it must not be self-interested but for the betterment of the group is most applicable. I think perhaps knowing I likely am ‘as high up’ in an organization that I’d like to be at this point of my career gives me freedom to ensure that when I do have the opportunity to speak power, it’s not done out of a mixed self-interest for any gain that I could perhaps manipulate conversations towards.
Kayli, I really appreciate the connections you made to other readings. How might An Everyone Culture dovetail with the “culture of candor” O’Toole presents?
Thanks Nicole. I think the connection of Kegan and O’Toole is that O’Toole offers a method to what Kegan identifies as a “DDO, Deliberately Developmental Organization.” The organization cannot become DDO without truth. Those classified as high performers or not, equally need safe space to speak truth because there could be significant realities not understood by power figures that play into their blanket classifications.