How to Navigate between Truth and Safety at Work
Topic Expert Contributor
A while ago I had an interchange with someone that got me thinking. It went like this:
“I had been mistreated for so long that the good parts and the financial security of the job just finally were outweighed by my loss of self-esteem. So, I rehearsed for weeks how to tell my boss I was leaving in a peaceful, non-blaming way. Just that it was time for me to move on. I went into his office and made my rehearsed statement.”
“What was his response?”
The woman said, “I couldn’t believe it. What a joke! He actually said, ‘Are you unhappy? Is there another place in the company you’d rather be?’”
I replied, “So it seems that you felt his response was just more of the same lack of understanding. Did his question seem real to you?”
“Well, you know, I have to admit, now that I look at it, it did seem real. But I was so shocked and I had so definitely made up my mind that the only possibility was to leave that I didn’t even take it seriously.”
I took a moment to feel into that surprising moment when her boss asked, “Are you unhappy?” How could it be that he didn’t know that she was unhappy? Of course, I’m not the boss here, but I’d like to make a guess. It comes from understanding a power-differential dynamic that can, if not recognized by the persons in both up-power and down-power positions, creates poignant and painful work situations like the one above.
It’s simple. The person with positional power (i.e., the boss, supervisor, therapist, teacher, CEO), whether they own it or not, has the power to dismiss, assess, promote, demote, and assign tasks that the person in the down-power position must follow. The person in the down-power position, therefore, is at risk of losing job or favor by offering truthful (but critical) feedback. So, down-power employees, like the woman in the story, withhold the truth. The up-power employer or supervisor then only or primarily hears good or neutral feedback, which leads to continued or even increased insensitivity and/or disrespectful or manipulative behaviors.
There are other possible reasons that those in up-power authority positions misuse or abuse their power. To name a few: they are caught in dysfunctional systems that are outside their control, they didn’t get adequate training in how to use their positional power sensitively and skillfully, they think they can get away with it, they over-identify with their up-power role and lose the perspective of the down-power position, or they want so much to be non-hierarchical that they don’t carry out the responsibilities of their role with the strength and direction that is needed.
I want to focus on the feedback dynamic because it is the one we can have most impact with when we are in down-power positions. Most of us, like the woman in the story, think we have to choose between telling the whole truth OR emotional security and peace. And most of us have had experiences in which we told the truth and got hurt. Or we told a truth nobody else was willing to express and became the “lightning rod”—the one who takes the shock for everyone else. We end up sacrificing ourselves for our principles. Of course, as history shows, this is often the only way. It’s always good to stand up for what is right and just; however, it’s even better when you can do it skillfully, effectively, and without personal danger.
Shifting from thinking you have to choose between truth and safety is similar to another big shift: from thinking you have to choose between power and heart to understanding that you can link power with heart. This shift is about using “smart power”, as in the article about Hilary Clinton in a recent issue of Time. Smart power in working with those up-power to you is using both compassion and skill to give feedback in ways that will be easier for them to hear. By so doing you’ll create a problem-resolving response instead of a negative or defensive one.
In my Right Use of Power classes we talk about how to be more effective in working with superiors. Here are a few suggestions that have come from real-life experience:
1. Offer authentic appreciation
2. Link a complaint with a request for change
3. Ask for a good time to talk
4. Avoid taking something on alone when there is significant risk—join with others
5. Be specific and describe the impact on you or system
6. Name possible solutions and be willing to be part of the solution
7. Try to understand the other’s position even if you don’t agree
8. Focus more on the future than the past
9. Identify possible differences in style
10. Find where you have leverage
11. Look for what you CAN do instead of what you can’t
12. Change a gripe into a curiosity
13. Look for the larger perspective
In a challenging situation, start by finding compassion for everyone concerned. Then, think and feel into the likely implications of several choices in order to choose what to try first. For example, what might the woman in this story do? In her shoes, I would try #3, then #1, then #2 (possibly including #5 and #6). Use whatever you try to help discern and refine your next step. One of the most difficult things, however, is to know when to persist and when to let go. Sometimes progress is so small it’s hard to see. In To Kill a Mockingbird, even lawyer Atticus Finch’s skill doesn’t save an innocent black man from being convicted of murder. One of the townspeople comments: “It’s Macon, Georgia in 1935 and Atticus actually got that jury deliberatin’ for hours an’ hours. Now that’s somethin’.” Lawyer Finch had to let go without getting the result he wanted.
When I was teaching in Japan, I gave my students these directions:
“Stand facing your partner. Now imagine that this partner is in an up-power position and you are having difficulty. Notice your stance, your feelings, your impulses.Name these aloud if you wish: ‘Anger, stiff, tight, throat hurts, want to shake the other person, eyes narrowed.’ Okay, now turn your back to your partner and take three breaths. I want you now to change only one thing. You don’t have to even like this person. Just take on an attitude of curiosity. Now, turn around and face your partner again and notice your responses. Are they different?“ The participants were quite amazed. One man said, “The wall I felt between us just disappeared.” Another said, “I shifted from focusing on my partner as tough and mean to seeing him as just another person and the problem was like a ball between us.”
Using our power with wisdom and skill, even when we are in a down-power position, can enable us to tell the truth to a higher-up and still be secure….and often effective.