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Speaking truth to power

 Guest blog by PotentialSquared


PotentialSquared has been working in partnership with Liz Sandwith at the Chartered IIA to develop and enhance leadership skills and behaviours across audit leaders, one of the topics we’ve been discussing is speaking truth to power. What we’ve learnt from asking audit leaders across different industries is that they are all facing similar challenges, and all have a willingness to try new and different approaches, while remaining true to themselves..

Speaking truth to power is difficult, but it can be done effectively. The key is conditioning those in power to want to hear the truth. Here are four steps to putting stakeholders into the right frame of mind to address the hard issues:

  1. Nurture the right kind of stakeholder relationships. Ideally, stakeholder relationships should be built on mutual respect and a clear understanding of internal audit’s role and value to the organisation. If this is not your current relationship, you must work to change that.
  2. Resist efforts to box internal audit into a limited role. If stakeholders pigeonhole internal audit, for example, into financial and compliance assurance roles, attempts to address taboo subjects outside those areas will fall on deaf ears.
  3. Prepare stakeholders for the inevitable showdown. Speak openly to the audit committee and board about how they might handle difficult findings. Stakeholders should understand there may come a day when internal audit will be the bearer of bad news or findings that management vehemently opposes.. Relationships built on mutual respect can survive contentious disagreement.
  4. Discuss with stakeholders that there are often greater risks in ignoring or looking away from risks that could yield “bad news.”

One thought behind the phrase ‘truth to power’ is to be true to yourself, be comfortable and act with confidence, conviction, and connection in the delivery of your message, focussing on honesty, supported by fact. Speaking the truth to others in a position of power can be daunting if we are calling out mistakes, injustices, or asking for things to change. 

So, how can we be more effective when speaking truth to power? 

  • Understand your audience; how do they want or like to receive information?
  • Recognise your own position.
  • Act with confidence, conviction, and connection.
  • Plan ahead, be sure of your facts and provide evidence.
  • Be prepared for different reactions and have alternative approaches. 

When we don’t have the courage or don’t speak the truth out of fear, we are letting ourselves and the organisation down. As a leader, you have to believe in the value of your own opinion and have an awareness of the risk of not speaking truth to power. Often, we stay silent because we fear or respect the power of others. We stay silent when we do not believe we have the power to be heard or to make a difference. And we silence others if they do not trust us to be interested in what they have to say.

Another imperative is to ensure there is a speak up culture in your organization. This means sharing the ideas needed for teams to respond with agility to quickly changing circumstances. Many employees have, or may have, ideas or suggestions that could assist their organisation’s performance but have not spoken up with their ideas formally. While the merit of suggestions might differ, it is probable that some valuable ideas remain hidden and the benefit they could bring, lost.

The experience of being heard is not simply a business case though, with some perspectives being underpinned by the assumption that an ‘employee voice’ is a fundamental democratic right for workers. It could be argued that creating an environment of psychological safety, where employees are not in fear of being embarrassed, shamed, or punished when they speak up, is also a moral duty. 

To be interested in others and to build strong and open internal cultures is more than a technical skill, it involves a specific life philosophy, a fundamental curiosity and humility. Ultimately it requires a commitment to ‘power with or for’ rather than ‘power over’.

How can you develop your confidence, conviction, and connection?

  • Your Confidence – within your physicality and vocality how can you show your confidence? Think about your body language, hand gestures, and the way you speak or phrase something. 
  • Your Conviction – how do you weave your values into your language, are you living and breathing those values? 
  • Your Connection – do you have the ability to read the person you are connecting with? Are you agile enough to adapt to what you want to get from them?

Sharon Hardcastle -

Content reviewed: 11 April 2023