7 things you need to speak truth to power

Financial mismanagement. Lay-offs of local and international staff. Inappropriate conduct by leadership. Finally, a visit planned from headquarters to see what’s going on. What do you do?

A superior continues to make passes at you. You find out you’re paid less than someone doing your exact same job. Someone takes undue credit for work you did.

The rules don’t work for us? Guess we have to stand up for ourselves and change those rules. This will not happen by letting power go unchecked or unchallenged, on a personal or a sectoral level.

Telling a donor or a boss to go fly a kite is an intimidating experience, but there is a point when we have to speak up, no matter how uncomfortable we may be or how much power someone else has.

From my experience, here are seven things that can make these encounters a little less frightening.

1)   Use of the powerful’s own language and tactics. Like it or not, sometime we’ll have to “play the game” in order to get the access to change the rules. I tend to favor infiltration and influence. But the words of a friend and fellow writer often also ring in my ear, “Sometimes, you also have to also scream and yell to get a seat at the table.”

2)   Consideration of the counter-argument. Anticipate how people may object to what you are saying. If you can, by acknowledging their perspective, you may “head them off at the pass” and defuse their opposition.

3)   Your peeps. I tend the tribe as a source of my power. Allies ground me, validate me, are friendly adversaries, help lick my wounds, and share their own tales of speaking truth to power. Invaluable.

4)   An ever-thickening, yet still permeable skin. When speaking truth to power, you will receive criticism yourself. Some of it will need to bounce right off your exterior. Some of it will be necessary to reflect upon and move you to the next level.

5)   A new definition of vulnerability. Powerlessness is only a perception. But I find that if I can acknowledge my own vulnerability, I can find a more secure place from which to advocate. In fact, my vulnerability emboldens me in a way, knowing that push-backs are necessary.

6)   A back-up plan. Whistleblowers often have to start anew. It’s the price they pay for speaking truth to power. But personal risk is often over-estimated. Bureaucracies and organizations benefit from our fear of losing our jobs. But we are not our organizations and it is foolish to equate income with security.

7)   Non-attachment to outcomes. You win some. You lose some. Real change is due to many factors outside of your control. So keep the long arc of justice in mind and let it rip anyway.

Why is it important for people to speak their truths within their organizations and within global development circles?

Because if you haven’t noticed, it is all about power.

So let her rip.


A version of this post first appeared on the Women Working in Aid and Development blog and then on how-matters.org.

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