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I ran a survey last month asking people about their experiences with Speaking Truth to Power. One hundred and fifty five professionals – mostly women – responded and said loud and clear that:

  • Almost half of them withheld their truth from their bosses a good deal of the time;
  • 82% had been penalized in the past for speaking their truth; and
  • 76% felt regret when they did not feel safe speaking their truth.

Though the survey wasn’t scientific, the responses were consistent and the takeaways intriguing. Here were the data points that really stood out for me, though, when it comes to women’s efforts to get ahead in the workplace.

  • Women are disproportionately willing to self-censor their truth due to lack of personal confidence (17% to men’s 11%) and because they believe speaking their truth would be inappropriate (16% to men’s 11%).
  • While men and women reported roughly similar rates of being penalized for speaking their truth (85% and 81% respectively), men reported significantly greater rates of being rewarded (82%) than did women (68%).

So now we know that the guys’ propensity to brag on themselves and our tendency to demur isn’t the only thing making it hard for us to get ahead. Even when we speak our truth, we’re rewarded less often for it. Now I have to point out that we don’t know why this dynamic may occur or how widespread it may be. Maybe men speak up more than women, maybe women are seen as less attractive when they challenge power and this makes them less “rewardable”*, maybe women are less willing to claim rewards, or something else entirely.

*This is a highly controversial and cynical read of the results, I know, but it would correlate to the research findings that women’s leadership characteristics are less attractive to men – unless they already had a female boss. But this cuts both ways because other research has shown that being attractive can actually hurt a woman’s chances of getting a job. Yep – total double bind we’re in.

And guess what? No one can fix this but us.

No One Can Speak Your Truth But You

Speaking your truth is important. It can get you ahead in your career. 72% of men and women combined reported that they had been rewarded with career bennies and increased respect when they spoke up. But even more importantly, it’s your truth. And your truth isn’t just what’s on your mind or even in your heart. Your truth goes deeper than that – to your core beliefs and values. It’s part of who you are.

When you don’t feel able to speak your truth in the office – to those in power especially – you’re not able to take your whole self to the office. And that really sucks. It feels bad personally, and it’s robbing your company of valuable insight and wisdom that you could be adding.

But here’s the trick – it’s your truth. No one CAN speak it but you. If you’re self-censoring too much, whether you have good reason to or not, the only one you’re hurting is yourself.

Speaking your truth – especially to those in power – is a career minefield as evidenced by the high numbers of people who report being penalized and rewarded – but that’s why they call it work. If you want to get ahead, it’s up to you to learn how to speak your truth effectively. You owe it to your career, but more importantly you owe it to yourself.

How To Speak Your Truth To Power Effectively

Anything worthwhile and complicated will take more than a blog post to fully explore, but I’ve spent a lot of energy researching this issue and testing out my findings on myself and my clients (no, we’re not guinea pigs, really☺). What I’ve learned is that most of us make some pretty typical mistakes when we try to speak our truth, all the way from speaking too glibly and not attaching our words to our real truth, all the way to putting our audience on the defensive (even when we try hard not to). We’ve bought into too many cultural myths about truth-telling – for example, that the opposite of True is always False – and get ourselves all tangled up in the myths when we go in to do the right thing.

There are techniques to get around this, making the effort to tie your truth to your beliefs and values and being willing to accept that your contribution may often be to unstick the discussion rather than to be the hero with the “winning” solution. With a little focus, anyone can learn to speak their truth well and often.

It’s important to me that you learn to speak your truth to power well. It’s good for your career, it’s good for you so you feel less stress and conflict and can be your authentic self in the office (and at home), and it’s good for the world because we’ll all receive the benefit of the truth and wisdom that only you can give us.

For yourself and the world, learn to speak your truth to power and do it!

Want to see the survey results for yourself? Download a free copy.

Related Posts: Speak Your Truth to Power – High Risk/High RewardWhat Does it Mean to Speak Your Truth to Power? , Business Leaders – Are You Hearing What’s Really Going On In Your Company? (Coming 10/4/11)

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