Speaking truth to power

Constructive dissent is essential, although incredibly uncomfortable, for senior leaders. It also takes tact and courage for subordinates to speak truth to power, as exemplified by the way Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former ambassador to the EU, raised his concerns about the UK government’s preparations for the impending Brexit negotiations.

One of the difficulties posed by a subordinate who challenges a leader’s assessment of a situation is that he/ she can puncture the fantasy held by the group. The role of fantasy is to hide the unbearable impossibility of the situation a country, organisation or group finds itself in. The flimsiness of fantasy means it cannot survive close scrutiny and must be rigorously protected by the group. Consequently, anyone who challenges the view that Brexit will be a relatively straightforward, painless process which will enable the UK to secure favourable trade deals with other countries must be dealt with harshly.

There are three possible options for the professional who needs to speak an uncomfortable truth to an unreceptive senior leadership team. First, you can speak the truth, being sensitive to the fantasies that hold the group together and readying yourself for the fallout that could occur. Second, you can speak it in private with colleagues, although if your views are leaked and you are not ready to leave the organisation you may need to follow the example of Galileo and publicly recant them. Third, you can keep your own counsel and not challenge the gaps/ inconsistencies in senior leaders’ thinking, whilst crossing your fingers and hoping everything will work out for the best.

Alternatively, leaders can ensure their subordinates are not only trained on how to surface and manage conflict with reference to group fantasies but that they are encouraged to do so and protected when they do.