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Speaking Truth to Power: A Guide to Effectively Driving Organizational Change


Effecting positive change within organizations often requires speaking uncomfortable truths, but doing so effectively is a nuanced challenge. Leaders must balance candor with care, conviction with connection, in order to move people and systems towards a shared higher purpose. This calls for a degree of courage, compassion, and strategic communication skills that many find daunting. However, research and examples from industry show it is possible to drive real transformation by speaking truth in a way that educates, unites and inspires action, rather than divides or deflates.


Today we will explore a framework for speaking truth to power in a manner that empowers organizational change.


Background: Why Truth and Change Often Collide


Before exploring an effective strategy, it's important to understand why speaking truth and driving change so often prove challenging. Research from social and cognitive psychology provides useful context:


  • Confirmation bias: People tend to remember and assign greater weight to information confirming existing views, while dismissing discordant facts (Nickerson, 1998). This makes new ideas hard to consider openly.

  • Dissonance reduction: When new facts contradict deeply held beliefs, it creates psychological discomfort that people are motivated to reduce - often by rationalizing away inconvenient truths (Festinger, 1957).

  • Reactive devaluation: Messages from opposed others face automatic discounting, regardless of content (Ross & Stillinger, 1991). Credibility is key to overcoming this.

  • Scarcity mindset: Perceiving lack drives short-term, risk-averse thinking that resists change promising short-term setbacks for long-term gain (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013). Framing is important.


These hurdles partly explain why leaders fear speaking difficult truths will undermine rather than cultivate the change needed. But with empathy, evidence and strategic dialogue, research also shows it is possible to prompt reconsideration of prior assumptions.


An Impactful Approach: Four Key Elements


Weaving together insights from psychology, leadership theory and case studies, an effective framework for driving change through frank yet respectful communication has four core elements:


  1. Build Credibility and Connection First: Gaining trust is paramount for messages challenging the status quo. Research on the social-influence approach (Cialdini, 2009) emphasizes building likability, expertise and common ground before raising sensitive issues. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella showed when he took over, prioritizing listening to understand other perspectives helps earn credibility to then gently nudge views.

  2. Frame Positively and Non-Defensively: How an issue is framed shapes reactions more than content alone. Studies show linking ideas to shared hopes and reframing problems as solvable invigorates collaborative spirit over defensiveness (Heath & Heath, 2007). For example, Elon Musk defies doubters not by denigrating naysayers but elevating vision of technology helping humanity.

  3. Marry Principles with Pragmatism: Dry dogma lacks means to spark action. But principles untethered from practical steps risk perception as naive. Research suggests the most impactful messages interweave an inspirational sense of purpose with tangible, manageable next steps (Kotter, 2012). Volkswagen's “Drive to Zero” plan to electrify blends bold sustainability vision with roadmap consumers can comprehend and support.

  4. Promote Perspective-Taking Over Polarization: Disagreements escalating into "us vs. them" dynamics stifle collaboration. Studies find promoting civil, empathic dialogue across differences most likely to open minds (Maoz, 2011). By acknowledging complexities respectfully, opportunity arises to find shared values beneath surface conflicts as seen in South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


Pulling these elements together creates an impactful model, with real-world applications further outlined in the following sections. The framework empowers candid yet constructive conversations that cultivate amenable climates for positive change.


Building Credibility from the Start


As research emphasizes, establishing credibility and connection is step one for effectively communicating sensitive issues. Several proven tactics can help:


  • Active listening: Make understanding others a priority over being understood. Ask respectful questions to learn diverse perspectives without judgment.

  • Inclusive messaging: Refer positively to shared interests rather than emphasizing differences upfront. Words like "we" and inclusive phrasing invite collaboration.

  • Acknowledge complexities: Note limitations in one's own knowledge and how issues involve reasonable disagreements. This displays humility and openness.


For example, when new Intel CEO Brian Krzanich took over, his open letter to all employees focused on listening to appreciate diverse views before outlining any plans. This built trust that prepared workers for his later push towards more inclusion and opportunity for all.


Similarly, when NASA faced sexual harassment issues in recent years, Administrator Jim Bridenstine addressed it transparently but didn't dwell on problems. His communication channeled pride in shared mission and optimism in collectively rising above weaknesses through American spirit of progress - a framing that motivated cooperation.


Respectful Reframing Sparks Creative Response


Another leadership lesson is framing issues inclusively to spark new perspective rather than defensiveness. Executive Coach Marshall Goldsmith advocates for "what" over "why" conversations that invite shared discovery. An impactful approach is describing a challenge respectfully and asking thoughtful questions to jointly reconsider assumptions, such as:


  • "What feasibility issues have others found with Approach X?"

  • "How can we reframe this to recognize both challenges and opportunities?"

  • "What aspects of the existing framework have benefitted you that we want to preserve?"


For example, when Philips CEO Frans van Houten took the helm, the firm faced crisis. But rather than blame predecessors, he reassured employees of their value while reframing issues as solvable through creativity and teamwork. This collaborative spirit helped Philips innovatively transform into a leader in health technologies.


Similarly, former Intel VP Renee James leveraged patience, empathy and solution-focused communication to turn around a difficult division. By reframing problems as puzzles to solve together through open dialogue and new ideas, she united previously oppositional groups behind beneficial reforms.


Aligning Vision with Actionable Steps


Research also finds the most effective changes are driven not just by lofty ideals but tangible, actionable steps. Leaders willing to roll up sleeves and get hands dirty gain authentic buy-in. Goals work best when:


  • Short-term wins are prioritized to maintain momentum by marking real progress employees see and feel.

  • Pilots allow testing ideas at a contained scale before organization-wide rollout to nurture learnings.

  • Accountability is built in by assigning clear roles and tracking metrics, but stressing the "what" not "who" for accountability.


Take Tesla CEO Elon Musk personally guiding assembly lines to speed production. Or Apple CEO Tim Cook overseeing supply chain reforms to ensure safe, fair working conditions. Rolling up sleeves to solve problems inspires emulation while gaining credibility for imparting bigger-picture visions.


Similarly, when Kimberly-Clark CEO Mike Hsu outlined ambitious sustainability goals, he matched them to near-term targets like waste reduction and renewable energy use across specific facilities. Providing hands-on guidance and recognitions kept the whole organization energized on progressing together step-by-concrete-step towards a brighter future.


Cultivating Constructive Cross-Understanding


Lastly, research consistently shows promoting understanding across differences more effectively drives progress than aggravated polarization. Civil, empathic dialogue untangles shared hopes beneath surface conflicts and opens minds. Skills like:


  • Active listening without judgment to appreciate diverse views

  • Reflective questioning to jointly unpack assumptions respectfully

  • Seeking common ground as a starting point for cooperative problem-solving

  • Addressing both logic and emotion to acknowledge what resonates for all parties


Can turn disagreements into discovery. Take the example of Chobani Founder Hamdi Ulukaya. By embracing refugee workers, he united a divided upstate New York community and boosted the local economy - due not to polarized pronouncements but inclusive actions and gentle persuasion emphasizing shared humanity.


Similarly, when Aetna Chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini set out to transform healthcare, he did so not by dictating solutions but sponsoring respectful cross-sector conversations to uncover overlooked connections. His empathic, solutions-focused leadership style cultivated partnerships that tackled entrenched problems in novel ways.


Conclusion


Research shows it is possible to drive impactful organizational change through frank yet respectful communication when certain best practices are followed. Speaking truth in a manner that builds credibility, frames issues positively, aligns vision with pragmatic action, and fosters cross-understanding can prompt reconsideration of prior assumptions and cultivate climates amenable to progress. While challenges will always exist, leaders who weave together empathy, evidence and strategic discussion skills have demonstrated the ability to navigate sensitive issues in a way that educates and unites people behind shared higher purposes of benefit. In times demanding disruption, this inclusive yet courageous approach to truth-telling holds promise for prompting beneficial transformation within complex organizations. When done right, speaking truth need not divide or deflate but can elevate and empower whole communities towards brighter futures together.


References


  • Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

  • Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. New York, NY: Random House.

  • Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

  • Maoz, I. (2011). Does contact work in protracted asymmetrical conflict? Appraising 20 years of reconciliation-aimed encounters between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Journal of Peace Research, 48(1), 115–125. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022343310389506

  • Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: The new science of having less and how it defines our lives. New York, NY: Picador.

  • Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175–220. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.2.2.175

  • Ross, L., & Stillinger, C. (1991). Barriers to conflict resolution. Negotiation Journal, 7(4), 389–404. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1571-9979.1991.tb00660.x

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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