Positional Power Inhibits The Truth — And We Need The Truth

Carmen E. Voilleque & Randy Harrington, Phd

Not many people have the courage to speak truth to power. Most of us find it easier to tell those in powerful positions exactly what they want to hear, whether it’s true or not.  The best managers and coaches understand that leadership is not just about vision—it’s about creating a climate where the truth is heard and information flows upward.  And they understand the myriad ways that their positional power works to block the truth from surfacing.

provisional-powerEvolutionary Leaders know that in order to foster transformative change they have to become experts at providing just the right opportunities for people to be heard, and for information to travel freely.  And the best Evolutionary Leaders know those information lines have to flow both ways. They share the real facts, however brutal, with their teams. Teams need to know that they can trust their leader to be real with them – if you become your team’s most trusted and reliable source of organizational information, in turn they will give you their loyalty, and the “word on the street” in the trenches.

The big point here is that positional power actually has a negative effect on the flow of honest—and especially negative—information in most organizations. One of the great goals for coaching is to create relationship micro-climates where people feel safe “telling it like it is.” Notice that we are not advocating that you take on the challenge of trying to create alignment or building great information flow in the ENTIRE organization. Not only is that task too daunting to contemplate, it’s just not within most leader’s control (unless, of course, you happen to be the CEO – but even then, it’s a real challenge!)

Here’s what we are saying: Create “safety zones” in your team or department where candid, fact-based information can flow in any direction. By “safety zones” we mean opportunities for direct communication from one person to a small group of others where the overarching value is on the raw truth of the situation. In the US Navy SEAL Teams, every operation concludes with a debrief…usually right after the mission is completed; before gear is cleaned and stowed, before reports are written. The debrief follows a structure; what worked, what didn’t work, where was our intelligence accurate, where was it faulty, etc. The debrief follows the same protocol regardless of the success (or failure) of the operation. The debrief is a safe zone for the SEAL’s to share raw, unvarnished, and candid perceptions of what happened and why. A debrief is NOT a gripe session; it is a place to come together and understand how to perform better the next time.

By “fact-based” we mean observable, measurable, verifiable information. The challenge here is to avoid politics, gossip, and “victim” centered communication. It is not OK to say, “We are off track because Joe is a flake.” But, it is OK to say, “We are off track because Joe has been at least three days late on the last three project deadlines.” Evolutionary Leaders drive people to include facts in every communication event. Learning to quantify events is a critical discipline because it removes so many of the obvious “social” power manipulations that become like weeds in poorly run businesses. Innuendo, gossip, half-truths, and omissions rule the day when “fact-based” observations are discounted.

Create both formal and informal methods for people to share information with the people who can most drive change in those areas. What we don’t want is every communication event to be a BIG DEAL; a huge team meeting with “everyone” around the table. These often become nothing more than rituals where people spend their energy putting a good face on their efforts rather than honestly reporting what is happening. So, instead of trying to convince everyone in an organization about something, I really only need to convince a small number of opinion leaders—who in turn will convince others.

Last but not least, Evolutionary Leaders never forget that their position and title are often working against them as much as for them. They understand that it will be their personal power, relationships and bonds that really drive success, not their title or seniority.

We’ve all had a boss who reveled in his or her positional power. And sure, there is real power attached to managerial positions; the power to hire and fire, make performance reviews for salary increases or promotions, make assignments to different work tasks etc. There is nothing wrong with the fact that some positions enjoy more power, more authority, and usually, more accountability than others. The problem comes when people believe that the managerial position also includes respect, trust, and dedication. There are people who believe that a position of power gives them license to be a jerk. These managers tend to brag about the perks they receive, flaunt their authority, and intimidate subordinates. But it doesn’t really work out for them in the end. Because when you depend on your position for authority, and treat people badly, you actually lose power. These managers are often shocked by the fact that people far lower on the organizational chart can wield far more power because of their attitudes, knowledge, and relationships with other employees and customers.

So that’s it – the secret to Evolutionary Leadership is all about tapping into the power of your people, the power of teams, and the power of your idea or vision.  No matter where you are on the organizational chart, you have influence. As you lead, you will learn that you cannot rely on “business as usual” standards if you are trying to make things better and encourage transformational change. You have to help employees see how their work brings real consequences for people upstream and downstream—and how the information they can share has the potential to make all the difference in the world!