In effect “speaking truth to power” means having the capacity and ability to take a stand on an important issue.

In effect “speaking truth to power” means having the capacity and ability to take a stand on an important issue.  It means giving yourself the power to dissent in the face of greater strength and power.

Are Business Partners up to the challenge?

The expression “speak truth to power” is said to originate from a 1955 book written by the Quakers on the search for an alternative to violence during the Cold War. It is also argued that it was earlier used by the American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Since then it has been used on numerous occasions to demonstrate power in the face of adversity often in complex political situations.

The expression is also widely known be used by McKinsey consultants when working with their global corporate clients. It is also an expression we frequently use at PPI when developing internal business partners or consultants be they from the world of IT, Finance or Human Resources. In effect “speaking truth to power” means having the capacity and ability to take a stand on an important issue.  It means giving yourself the power to dissent in the face of greater strength and power.

A fundamental challenge. The expression summarises one of the most fundamental challenges facing any professional adviser, be they internal or external, namely how do you tell some “hard truths” to people with more power than you. The challenge is considerable for any external adviser who is keen to maintain a positive relationship and billing capability with their client. But for an internal business partner it is an immeasurably more complex challenge. For not only is there, the question of status and hierarchy in the room but there is also the lingering worry and concern around job security. Add into the equation the further difficulty of influencing domineering “A” type personalities and you’ll see that ‘speaking truth to power’’ does not come easily to any business partner. Yet it is perhaps the ultimate test of how any internal support function can add value to their organisation.
Our experience of working with many highly skilled business partners from all support functions indicates that many do indeed struggle with the challenge of showing dissent towards a conventionally accepted view.

A leader may not react well. It is often said about Fred Goodwin, the former disgraced CEO of Royal Bank of Scotland that he could be especially difficult to influence or persuade if his mind was made up. His regular Monday morning briefings were regularly referred to as “Monday morning beatings” such was his reputation for being tough and ruthless. One can also think of other domineering leaders such as former Lehman Brothers CEO, Dick Fuld whose nickname was “The Gorilla.” Whilst even a cursory review of the legendary retail leader Sir Philip Green’s performance, in front of the British House of Commons select committee, over the failure of his former BHS retail chain, will show a leader who does not react well or take kindly to any questioning of his actions or decisions. Whilst these former celebrity CEO’s are perhaps extreme examples we can all perhaps think of leaders and managers who are prone not to take advice from others never mind having their decisions or plans critically evaluated. Yet this is frequently the task we give to business partners be they working in Finance, IT or HR.

Navigating the challenge. At PPI, we believe that speaking truth to power is a key value and behaviour of any high-performance business partner. We argue that one of the key strengths of the role is the ability to sometimes inform or advise senior leaders of something they don’t already know! In our view this is where internal support functions add most value to their organisations.

To navigate the challenge, we enable individuals to understand how they typically operate when dealing with potential conflict situations involving power and hierarchy. We help people understand the classic strategies that can be adopted and seek to equip business partners with a better understanding of the different strategies they can employ when giving tough messages. At the same time, we stress the importance of what we call the three T’s – Tell The Truth. In our methodology we explore the alternatives to not confronting or speaking truth to power. Generally, the concensus view is that the situation will only worsen and become a bigger problem or challenge later. So, we facilitate people developing the skill of how to give the message in a direct and influential manner as opposed to an aggressive or provocative style.

We also place great emphasis on equipping business partners with critical questioning skills that help them surface difficult and contentious issues in a non-judgemental way. Frequently we train people to lead their leaders or management teams to the realisation that something is not working or delivering without confrontation. Of course, facts are big enablers in this process. Facts make any business partner strong and when speaking truth to power it’s critical that you have the facts to back up any conclusions or recommendations you are making.

Equally we recognise that in some situations facts are not enough and that emotions will be at play. Sunk “emotional” costs into a strategy or initiative will often make a radical change of direction or strategy difficult so we also help business partners recognise the importance of emotional triggers when giving tough messages.

At PPI, we firmly believe that “speaking truth to power” is a key differentiator for today’s high performance business partners.

To find out more about how to equip your support teams with this key Business Partner behaviour and skill set contact Gerry Buckley on

Business Partner

About the Author

Mark Thomas: Leading International Expert on Business Partnering

Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is an international business consultant, author and speaker specialising in business planning, managing change, human resource management and executive development. Prior to working with PPI he worked for several years with Price Waterhouse in London where he advised on the business and organisational change issues arising out of strategic reviews in both private and public sector organisations.