Speaking truth to power: the empowering culture

Empowering 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 empowering – or ‘bees’ culture.

What does an empowering culture look like?

In an empowering culture there is often a clearly identifiable, dominant leader who is akin to the ‘Queen Bee’. As in nature, the worker bees are there to serve the needs of the queen, but are given the power to self-organise and work together in order to make the hive a success.

To put it in an organisational context, the senior team may go on a management away-day and come back with an agreed strategy. The strategy itself is a fait accompli, but the process of exactly how it is achieved is given over to the business.  Departments may be told, for example, that they need to achieve a 20% increase in profits, but it is up to them to decide how to do it.

An empowered culture can feel like a safe place to work. The big important decisions have been taken by someone else, but there is still scope for employees to be creative within set boundaries. 

Some, however, may find it frustrating not to have had any say in the overall direction, but to be expected to agree and get on with it.

Implications for Leaders

Leaders who are working in – or trying to create – an empowering culture need to make sure they are genuinely prepared to leave their contribution at strategic level.  It’s about setting the target, making sure people have the tools and resources to do the job, and then getting out of the way.

“Don’t invite yourself into the conversation, but be available as a resource if asked,” says report co-author John Higgins.  

Leaders need to recognise that not everyone is immediately comfortable with being given licence to run the show. Some people don’t step up because they are frightened of getting it wrong, while others simply prefer not to have to think for themselves and just want to be told what to do.

The key is to set targets that are realistic and achievable and to make sure you are not just paying lip service to empowerment and are actually being directive in disguise.

There is nothing more frustrating, for example, for people to be told to go away and get on with it, only to find their ideas rejected by a leader who already had a firm idea of exactly how they wanted things done.

Speaking up safely

In a empowering culture, individuals need to make sure they have their ‘fighter cover’ firmly in place. That means spending time clarifying what the target is, playing back what has been said and making sure they have a really clear understanding of exactly what they are being asked to achieve.

It’s also important to check exactly how ‘hands-off’ a manager really wants to be. Do they want to be kept in the loop daily, weekly or monthly, for example, and what level of detail do they need? When is it OK to side-step organisational processes and hierarchies? What licence is there for people to collaborate with other departments and teams in pursuit of their objective? 

It’s about establishing the boundaries of freedom of action – because unless it’s actually spoken, no-one really knows.

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