Speaking truth to power: the dialogic culture

Dialogue at work
ALotOfPeople/iStock
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 dialogic – or ‘starlings’ culture.

What does a dialogic culture look like?

In a dialogic culture, there is limited hierarchy and often no obvious chain of command. The leader typically sees his or her role as bringing people together to discuss issues and make decisions. Once the scene or challenge has been set, employees are generally free to organise themselves in whichever way seems most sensible, in order to achieve their objectives.

It’s akin to the way that starlings operate - where the flock congregates into a large co-ordinated group at dusk, takes off and then constantly orders and re-orders itself during the course of its flight.

This culture can feel very involving and engaging. People feel as if their opinion counts and can see a direct link between suggestions they’ve made and what actually happens. It can result in an agile, flexible organisation, where people can work and learn together and come up with creative solutions.

On the downside, if not carefully managed this kind of culture can result in little more than a ‘talking shop’, where discussions go round in circles and it takes an inordinately long time for decisions to be made

Implications for leaders

Leaders who operate in a dialogic culture need to create a genuine, shared understanding among employees of what they are trying to achieve. They have to make sure that the space they are opening up is truly supportive and that as well as voicing their own opinions, people are also valuing the opinions and contributions of others. 

Leaders need to have a strong belief in the wisdom of crowds and to know when they need to step in – and when it’s better to step out. They also need to be comfortable with the concept of not being right. “In order to encourage people to speak up, you have to be able to dial your own ego down and make others feel they are respected by you,” says John Higgins.

There are dangers inherent in asking everyone’s opinion which leaders also need to be aware of. It’s important, for example, that people’s whose ideas are not pursued, or whose views are not shared by the majority, could end up feeling disengaged. This needs to be carefully managed to make sure that people still feel valued and are willing to support whatever decisions or actions have been agreed.

Speaking up safely

If you have grown up in a more traditional corporate setting, you may find the lack of boundaries and procedures in this kind of culture unsettling at first. Those who are able to work most successfully in a dialogic setting are generally comfortable with exploring difference and relish exploring new concepts and ideas. They recognise that there is no single ‘truth’, but multiple, complex and nuanced ways of looking at things.

“It’s about finding a way to get out of your individual head and into collective relationships,” says John Higgins. “You have to take the process of speaking up seriously – and understand that in this culture there is no place for political game-playing.  It’s about speaking up sincerely and owning what you say.”

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