Speaking truth to power: the adjudicated culture

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Megan Reitz
Client Director
Ashridge Business School
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This article was co-authored by Megan Reitz and John Higgins of Ashridge Executive Education.

Leaders are inadvertently silencing their people – and as a consequence are not hearing the truth  about what’s really going on in their organisation.  

This is one of the key findings to come out of research from Ashridge Executive Education which looks at the dynamics of ‘speaking truth to power’ and provides practical advice on how leaders can improve dialogue in their organisation.

Leaders’ ability to manage the subtle nuances that influence why people speak up – or choose to stay silent – plays an important role in establishing a culture of truth. The cultural backdrop of the business, however, also has a major impact on what leaders are likely to hear, and how safe people feel in sharing what they know.

The research report ‘Being Silenced and Silencing Others: Developing the capacity to speak truth to power’ [PDF], identifies four types of organisational culture – directive, adjudicated, empowering and dialogic. It points out that none of these ‘truth to power’ cultures are right or wrong, with each presenting its own challenges and opportunities.

In this article we look specifically at the adjudicated – or ‘owl’ culture

What does an adjudicated culture look like?

In an adjudicated culture the leader is often akin to the ‘wise owl’ who listens to the opposing points of view and makes a considered decision about who is right or wrong.

Working in this culture can be a bit like being in a court room, where there is one single source of judgement and the decision made is absolute and final.

There are advantages and disadvantages to working in this way. Managed well, it can lead to good quality debate among colleagues and willing acceptance of the final decision. Managed poorly, however, it pits people into direct competition against each other and can lead to employees pursuing their own ends rather than collaborating with colleagues.

Implications for leaders

Leaders who adopt this management style need to be very aware of the kind of environment they are creating.  

Although a certain amount of competition can be healthy, sending people into direct combat can cause employees to engage in ‘playground behaviour’, where they deliberately attempt to undermine their colleagues.

Leaders need to strike the right balance between encouraging healthy debate and welcoming opposing points of view, whilst also making it clear that the end game is to find a solution that is best for the business.  

They have to be open to listening to different perspectives and comfortable with what can sometimes be difficult conversations. They need to be aware that the arguments they are hearing will often be one-sided and geared to the personal interests of those putting them forward.

It’s also important not to show favouritism, which can lead to jealousy between individuals or teams.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for leaders in an adjudicated culture is how they handle the ‘losing side’ once a final decision has been made and announced. There is a danger that if alternative points of view are given continued air-time, it can detract from the business of getting on with whatever strategy has been agreed.

Speaking up safely

Individuals who want to get their voice heard in an adjudicated culture need to understand how to put together a compelling argument or business case. 

Speaking up successfully means getting to know the key stakeholders and developing an understanding of exactly how decisions are made in the business. It also means being aware of what opposing arguments are likely to be put forward and knowing what agenda other teams or colleagues may be pursuing.

Individuals who thrive in this kind of environment are generally comfortable with being ‘political’, confrontational and with sometimes finding themselves in direct conflict with colleagues.

It can sometimes be tempting to keep certain things quiet or to manipulate the truth to gain advantage. The key to success, however, is to find ‘win-win’ solutions and above all to learn to argue in a way that doesn’t alienate others or create outright enemies.

Adjudicated cultures call for individuals who can take losing on the chin and are able to be gracious in defeat. It’s also important to know how to win well and to play the game with a generous spirit towards opponents. Striving to win at all costs won’t do anyone any favours.

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