Dealing with the Power/Truth Imbalance

By The Army Leader

Sophocles knew about the power/truth imbalance

“All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” Sophocles, Antigone

The topic of speaking up and getting your voice heard has been a hot one recently, with two articles written in the Wavell Room, one from the Centre for Army Leadership and an outstanding speaker talking at one of their events.  It’s sadly obvious why we are discussing such an interesting topic in the Army.  No matter how far we’ve moved on from old-fashioned ideas likes “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why”, the Army remains a highly hierarchical structure where your boss has power over your free time, your position in the team and your promotion prospects.

So as a junior leader, what can you do to make sure people speak truth to power in your team? And how do you do it upwards?

The Power/Truth Imbalance

The whole concept of speaking truth to power rests on an imbalance. An imbalance in power and an imbalance in information. The leader has the power. The follower has the information.

So why isn’t the transfer of valuable, truthful information simple thing? It’s because is there a combination of weaknesses, opportunities and threats at play wherever those imbalances exist. What they are and how a follower can do something about them is worth examining. Pretty much every leader is a follower too. And examining these imbalances helps you, as a leader, understand why people might not bring you their ideas.

Let’s look at an old-school SWOT analysis:

power/truth imbalance SWOT analysis

Speak to me!

So what must the leader do to ensure his followers speak truth to him? He needs to create the conditions that minimise the followers’ weaknesses and threats.

  • Pass his experience to his followers
  • Give them the context
  • Not punish or otherwise damage those who offer him their logical opinions and well-reasoned judgments

Of these, it’s the third that seems to be the most difficult for a leader. I’ve even heard it suggested you can go further – make your followers comfortable challenging you by getting them to practice it until it holds no fear for them. If you can’t do number three and make your followers comfortable challenging you, then don’t expect to reap the benefits of their honest opinion.

(Although if your followers can’t offer you well-reasoned judgments and opinions, you have a different problem).

Listen to me!

Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger CRM Crew Resource Management

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger put the success of his landing of United 1459 down to skills his team learned on the Crew Resource Management programme

What does the follower need to do?

Well first, all of this has to be based on a bedrock of competence, professionalism and putting the mission first. Put bluntly, if you are a constant and incompetent complainer your moment of speaking truth to power will be taken as another whinging complaint. “It’s a soldier right to complain” I was once told. Well not if he wants to be listened to, its not.

But in order to be listened to he also needs to showcase his strengths and avoid threatening his leader.

  • Explain how he sees issues and facts in light of his grasp of the situation and detail
  • Do so in a way that doesn’t threaten his leader’s ego
  • Or threaten his leader’s authority
  • Or unpick all the effort that the leader has made so far.

How might that look from a follower’s perspective? One way of doing it is to follow the ‘appreciative enquiry’ method used in the airline industry and medical professions.

The airline and medical industries found that followers were telling leaders when they identified a problem. Often they would give them a solution. But the leaders didn’t always listen to their subordinates.This technique, one part of what’s known as Crew Resource Management, ensures that:

  • The leader’s attention is grabbed in a way that doesn’t threaten his ego
  • Puts the problem up front as an observation based on the follower’s knowledge
  • Offers a solution rather than demands a change
  • Reduces the threat to the leader’s authority by still giving them the power to decide
  • But finishes with a question, which creates a ‘closed loop communication’. The leader has to respond.

Get attention, state the problem, offer a solution, ask agreement

How does it work?

First comes the attention-getter. Use a name or rank rather than simply ‘sir’. Respectfully, you’ve got your leader’s attention. “Capt Johnson” 

Second, state the problem as you see it. Use a statement. “I see that we are planning to take the same route we’ve taken several times before.”  

Third, offer a solution and use assertive language “I know it’s the fastest route and we’re under time pressure. We should take the route back via the village which we haven’t used for a few weeks”

Finally, seek agreement. This is important in that it places the focus back on the leader to reply. It closes the loop of the communication. “Do you agree?”

Speaking up is hard. Sometimes being heard is even harder.

“Colonel Smith. I see that intelligence shows armour near the landing sites and we won’t have anti-tank weapons. Why don’t we forward load more anti-armour? Do you agree?”

“Lt Adams, I see that no one is actually qualified to do this job. We have to find someone qualified before we begin. Do you agree? 

“General, one of our big problems is over-committing to tasks. Why don’t I check it against the priorities and confirm if we can complete the task effectively. Do you agree?”

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this technique will suddenly lead to your boss listening to you and agreeing with every point you make. But it is backed by research in the airline and medical industries that shows it increases the chances of leaders listening to followers. It’s also shown to improve the quality of outcomes as well. Ira Chaleff talks about it in this video.

Follower or leader: Improve your chances

So if you’re a leader, pass your experience on to your followers, give them the context and avoid punishing or otherwise damaging those who offer their logical opinions and well-reasoned judgements. Teach your team to use the technique above and recognise it when it’s in action. When they use it, your team are trying to tell you something you need to know.

When you are a follower, remember that complainers don’t get listened to. Only competent professionals get to have their truth listened to by power. When you have to, use the technique above to improve your chances of being listened to. Explain how you see issues and facts. Do so in a way that doesn’t threaten your boss’s ego or authority. In a hierarchical organisation like the Army, it’s a good start.


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Media Credits: Images © Crown Copyright. Used under Open Government Licence v3.0.