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The boss says s/he wants to know what’s on your mind, but do they really? Really?

High Risk

Almost half of respondents from a recent survey (48%) say they withhold their truth more than 25% of the time. Why? Because 82% say they’ve been penalized in the past for speaking up, being pushed aside, minimized and even losing their jobs. When I asked this question in discussion forums and in the survey, some of the emotions were raw. People feel that their integrity is at stake when something important is on the line and most (76%) feel regret when they decide to bite their tongues.

It’s normally my nature to speak the truth. So when I don’t, I feel like I’m not being true to myself. ~Survey Respondent

This regret is highly personal. We often feel that we are compromising our integrity when we clamp our mouths shut. I know this feeling, like you have to leave part of you at home every morning when you grab the keys and head out the door for work. It’s painful.

High Reward

But there’s a silver lining here if you want to advance your career and feel like you’re taking your whole self to the office every day – 72% said that speaking truth to power actually got them ahead! New assignments, new jobs and promotions all resulted from speaking up and telling the boss their truth.

I found that I got more opportunities and promotions after I decided I would speak my truth unconditionally. ~Survey Respondent

73% of those who had been rewarded have been penalized as well, which means that risk takers who are willing to take the hits also get the rewards.

But what’s going on in the gap? Is there a way to increase your likelihood of reaping the rewarded career advancement – building your personal power – for speaking your truth and minimize the downside risk? Definitely.

Improving Your Odds

The primary reasons respondents gave for deciding not to speak their truth was fear. Fear that the potential downside to them was greater than the upside it might produce (24%) and fear of an angry response (19%). Clearly you need to overcome your fears in order to speak up and reap the rewards. But this is a grey zone – and fear thrives in uncertainty; many people reported that the penalties they paid were not always overtly related to their decision to speak up, indicating that when they do self-censor, it is often based on their sense of the culture more than any formal cultural rules. In addition, respondents cited the boss’ ego getting in the way as the primary reason they decided not to take the risk of speaking up (70%).

So if you’re unsure how or when to speak your truth, and stuck in the fear of what might go wrong when you do, you’re not alone! But there is hope. Here we have some clues about the dangerous territory you must navigate: unclear cultural standards, the boss’ ego and your own fear of retribution and penalty. But 72% have reaped rewards for taking that risk, so there must be a way!

And there is.

Announcing: Speak Your Truth to Power eCourse
Launching: October 24, 2011

How to Speak Your Truth to Power Effectively

Here are my recommendations to individuals from the survey report, based on the survey findings:

  • Learn to speak your truth so you can maintain your integrity – bringing your whole self to the office – in high and low risk situations.
  • Learn to speak your truth so you can advance your career when the opportunity presents itself.
  • Learn to handle the nuances of factual situations differently than emotional and ethical situations.
  • Test the corporate culture more actively so that you know when you self-censor your truth for valid reasons and when it’s really not necessary.
  • Recognize that throughout your career you are likely to encounter situations where you are rewarded and others where you are penalized for speaking your truth. Be prepared for both outcomes, and don’t stop speaking your truth just because you don’t always get your way.
  • Learn to manage your decisions to speak or stay silent in ways that don’t leave you regretting your decision (either way.)

I’ve been studying and researching this issue for a while and these survey results help crystallize some of the work I’ve been doing with executive coaching clients and myself. Specifically, we tend to get tangled up in some basic myths about truth-telling when we are in the heat of the situation, even when we know better, and buying into the myths tends to make us less effective and more vulnerable to the high risk scenario.

We all know that in the grey zone of business situations, “truth” is rarely an objective fact and that many factors are at play. We know that many situations that call for us to speak our truth are not simple “right/wrong” decisions and that our emotions and everyone else’s run high, and even when we try not to put others on the defensive, including the boss, we don’t always succeed. But having no other way to see truth-telling than through the myths of True/False and Truth/Lies, we too often fall victim to them.

I’m happy to report, however, that there are relatively straightforward ways to address these myths and retrain yourself to speak truth to those in power in your life effectively. You can delve into your truths more deeply to make them more powerful, release the fear and learn how not to put others on the defensive.

I’ll be expanding on this research, including the interesting gender variable, the myths and how to avoid them in upcoming blog posts. I’m also offering the eCourse above with an in-depth exploration of these themes and exercises that you can use to apply to opportunities you have now to learn to speak truth to power effectively and well. It’s an investment not only in advancing your career, but in being true to yourself in every situation every day for the rest of your life. I can’t wait to get started and I hope you’ll join me!

I’m interested to know what you think and what your experience has been with speaking truth to power. Please leave your comments below and share your experience.

Note, this was not a scientific survey, but it does represent the experience of 155 professionals and is a unique data set to the extent Google can help me track down comparable research. You can download a free copy of the research report here.

Subscribe to the blog to receive upcoming related posts:  Speak Your Truth To Power Men are Rewarded More Often for Speaking Their Truth? Really?Business Leaders – Are You Hearing What’s Really Going On In Your Company? 

This post originally appeared on the Reclaiming Leadership blog. Sign up for my weekly newsletter, InPower Insights, for power-coaching advice, InPower surfing suggestions and recent blog posts.

Dana Theus