Speaking truth to power: the directive culture

Directive leader
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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 directive – or ‘lion’ culture.

What does a directive culture look like?

In a directive culture, there is one clear, all-powerful ruler. This single ‘heroic’ leader typically has a clear vision of where the organisation is going.  As far as they are concerned, there is one, single version of the ‘truth’ and they expect people to follow their lead without challenge.

Despite rumours to the contrary, this type of directive, command and control culture is alive and well across industry. Although it has become somewhat outmoded, there are times when it has its place – in a crisis situation where people need clear direction for example. 

It is not necessarily a bad place to be. If the leader is an inspiring, visionary character, it can be an exciting and engaging environment for employees. It is also an environment where people are not expected to think for themselves, so can feel very safe.

On the flip side, if the leader is very autocratic and unapproachable, it can feel stifling and intimidating.

Implications for leaders

Leaders who adopt this management style need to be aware of just how much they are probably not hearing. “They are in a position of considerable power and by and large people will tell them what they think they want to hear,” says John Higgins, co-author of the report.

The danger in this is that critical information which could affect the very survival of the business doesn’t get surfaced, and ideas that could give the organisation competitive edge don’t emerge.  

“One individual cannot possibly have the foresight to know what to do in every given situation, and by putting themselves in a position of ‘all-knowing’ and ‘all-powerful’, they are wasting the collective intelligence of the organisation,” says lead researcher Megan Reitz. “There are plenty of people in the business who are closer to the customer than the leader can ever be. It simply isn’t really realistic for them to always know what’s best.”

Leaders also need to ensure that their ‘rightness’ doesn’t tip over into arrogance, which can leave them very vulnerable to not knowing what is really going on. “It is possible to find a way of being directive in a subtle, skilful manner so that people actually want to do what you are asking of them,” says Megan Reitz.

Speaking up safely

Individuals who want to get their voice heard in this ‘Lion’ culture have to make a careful judgement (link to later article) about how risky it will be for them to speak up, particularly if the message is likely to be unpalatable for the leader.

Do you feel so strongly about the subject that keeping quiet is not an option? What might the consequences of sharing your view be?

“As the person speaking up, you need to actively manage the boundaries of the conversation,” says John Higgins. “Check with the leader that they are happy to give you licence to speak and assess how genuinely open they will be to hearing what you have to say.”

Strong influencing skills are your friend in this situation.  It’s about being politically savvy and understanding who are the people in the business the leader is most likely to listen to. Would the message perhaps come better from them? What are the leader’s main motivators?  If you can hit their hot buttons, you are more likely to be heard.

“You have to tread carefully and be really mindful of what you say, because the risks are very high,” says John Higgins.

About Megan Reitz

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