This guest post is by Dana Theus, principal of Magus Consulting. Learn more about her at www.ReclaimingLeadership.com.

Hey, boss! Remember how you asked me what I really thought? Well, I thought about it and decided I really don’t think it’s in my best interests to tell you.

At least that’s what almost half the professionals surveyed recently (48%) indicated is the reason they keep from speaking their truth at the office much of the time. Note, this wasn’t a scientific survey, but 155 respondents’ gave pretty consistent answers that look like meaningful indicators as you plot how to manage your employee base to stellar business success.

And this data is consistent with a recent study by Corporate Executive Board with even scarier results.

  • Companies whose employees were afraid to speak up suffered 5.8% lower total shareholder return than those with cultures that encouraged open communications.
  • Where fear was more prevalent, fraud and misconduct were higher.
  • 59% of companies surveyed said that $1 million worth of harm would have to be at stake for employees to share honest negative feedback (29% said $10 million).


Why? You scare the bejeezus out of me, that’s why.

Eighty-two percent of respondents to the first survey said at some point in their careers they’d been penalized for speaking their truth, penalties ranging from being passed over for promotion, pushed aside and fired. Get this, 70% said it was the boss’ fault because his/her ego got in the way. So even if you’re not a jerk, your employees are probably walking on eggshells around you anyway because their last jerk-boss made them wary.

Want scientific backup for this point? CEB found it was a “fear of retaliation” was the most important driver for employee discomfort in speaking up.

So what? I’m outta here, that’s what.

Many people report that being penalized for speaking their truth made them quit or seek employment elsewhere. Speaking truth isn’t just another career skill — like negotiating a salary package — it really hits people at their core and is related to feeling like they’re being true to themselves as human beings. Seventy-six percent said when they withheld their truth they regretted it later. So if almost half your employees aren’t comfortable speaking their truth to you, and the majority of them regret having to bite their tongues, it’s logical to think that this issue is contributing to the increased levels of job dissatisfaction and loyalty we see reported lately.

There was also some indication that women are rewarded less often for speaking their truth than men (68% and 82% respectively). Sure, there may be many reasons for that, but if you have a goal to reach the 30% tipping point of women in leadership at your organization so you can reap the market rewards, then you might want to look into whether this issue is driving some of your best women leaders away.

Sure, I’ll listen if you’ve got a plan.

We all know that plenty of people think they’re speaking their truth when they’re really not. Speaking truth to power – the skill that will help your employees tell you what’s really on their mind in a way that is productive and meaningful – is a career minefield judging by the high numbers of people who’ve experienced severe penalty (82%) and high reward (72%), but an important one if you want to make your employees feel valued and find out what they’re not telling you. For that matter, are YOU good at speaking truth to power? Your truth matters too and the CEO or the board should want to hear what you have to say just as much as you need to hear from those below you.

Speaking truth to power effectively means you have to resist buying into our cultural myths about truth-telling – that the truth that matters most is the first thing in our minds or hearts – no matter how deeply felt – and that the opposite of True is always False, for example. You and your employees need to learn to speak truth to power effectively and work to make it part of your corporate culture. Only by focusing on it will all the pains of past penalties be overcome in your workspace.

What do you think? What’s your personal experience with speaking truth to power? Have you been penalized? Rewarded? How does that factor into your willingness to speak your truth in your current situation? Come on – we all have a story!

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28 Responses to “Is your ego in the way of your success? (Your people might think so)”

  1. It is a wake-up call: people spend more than 50% of their lifetime at work and not able to be truthful. Leadership from the VERY top should embrace hearing and telling good and bad news with grace.

    • Dana Theus says:

      I agree. Why do you think it's so hard? Personally I think it's a cultural thing that leads everyone to fear being wrong. This fear manifests itself in an inability to learn how to fail fast as well. All in all, not good for the health of our companies if we don't learn to overcome it.

  2. Bpositive says:

    Great article! It would be interesting to know how many are reluctant to respond to this article for fear of telling the truth!

    • Susan Penn says:

      EXcellent article. Being authentic and truthful, combined with a mindful and purposeful approach will create a healthy and profitable work environment. Anyone who is a Manager needs to honestly ask themselves, "do I really want to know what is not working as well as what is?" If not, your body language, reaction and more will communicate the "true" message. What happens after is as important…if Managers grab the issue and make it theirs to solve rather than gathering further information and discussing and delgating to responsible others, well, this will stop open communication as well.

    • Dana Theus says:

      Bpositive – according to my unscientific-but-interesting survey, about half of us without our truth more than 25% of the time…. so that's one way to think about it:)

  3. Monigo says:

    Great article! I stay in the penalty box on this one. I believe many people are afraid to hear the truth because they might have to take action on themselves!

    • Dana Theus says:

      Oh! Good insight. I agree that the reticence to change is endemic. And sad. Just think how powerful someone (a boss?) with great power could be if they were open to personal change? I guess we all fall victim to this one a bit, but yes, it's an issue. Are we in the penalty box together?

  4. This was a good article with accurate representations of what happens when genuineness is not a value in the workplace. Of the six principles that we have researched that are necessary for an organization to be ethical, quality-focused, productive, successful and cooperative, Genuineness is a real heavy hitter. Without it organizations are considerable dumber that those organization where genuineness thrives. And, as you correctly represent in this article, employees are less engaged and many leave seeking greener pastures.

    As a consultant I often hear from employees who are discovering their primary communication styles within the course of training. On one occasion an employee asked me, "Do you want me to complete this survey the way I am at home and with friends or at work?" When I asked if there was a difference, not only did this employee say there was but others in the group also nodded their heads. Then I asked them if they were stressed. The overwhelming response was, yes.

    This was a very good article and timely for leaders interested in employee engagement and retention ideas.

  5. [...] on quitting before she went to Atlanta.  What most bosses never know is that most employees will not speak their truth because they do not feel emotionally safe enough to do so.  In corporate speak we would say this is [...]

  6. michael webster says:

    Dana, that is an interesting post. In an economic world in which leaders get outsized rewards for coordination of groups, maybe some people are simply "going on strike".

    I have a leadership exercise on this topic:
    http://www.franchise-info.ca/cooperative_relation

  7. Vicki says:

    This is a great article. I think ego plays a huge role in a leaders willingness and even their ability to hear the truth. If you are someone who does speak the truth and is willing to do so to those in power, but this effort is ignored, or even belittled, you can't expect them to do it again. How a leader responds to someone who has chosen to be truthful sets the tone for that person and others.

    I agree that much of the reluctance from leaders comes from them having to possibly admit that they aren't perfect. How sad to go through life with everyone lying to you.

  8. Dana Theus says:

    Most of us choose not to speak our truth out of fear of reprisals – or of being wrong. What would it take to move past the fear? Actually I don't think it's nearly as hard as we tend to think it is, but we have to acknowledge the risk and be willing to deal with the outcome – good, bad and ugly.

    I've posted more resources on this topic, including my unscientific-but-interesting internet survey for download here: http://reclaimingleadership.com/speak-truth-to-po… for those who would like to explore this topic in more depth.

  9. Steve says:

    A great insight here. Too many people are afraid to speak the truth. When the fact of the matter is no matter how good leadership is you will get more from a large group of people than you ever could from an individual, no matter how good that individual is.

    Ultimately leadership must rest with the boss but being really open until decision time helps a lot

    • Dana Theus says:

      Agreed, Steve! It takes a very mature leader to be open, listen and factor in all the truth coming at him/her into their final decision. And, yes, at the end of the day it is a person that makes the decision and bear's the responsibility for it. It's tempting to think that everything is a grass-roots business, but leadership absolutely still matters!

  10. Mrangelus says:

    I work for a large national company that is pretty much being run these days by business consultants. Therefore the employees are very much afraid to speak the truth if it is contrary to the current business path du joir for fear that whatever they say, if it is not positive to the direction of the company, will brand the person as a non-team player. This creates a rather sick culture, driven to change behaviors while ignoring employee input that might otherwise be embraced by true leaders. I appreciated your article and the comments made here. Our company it seems is not alone.

    • Dana Theus says:

      Hi, Mrangelus. No, your company is not alone at all. A culture of candor is a pretty rare thing in my personal experience, and even the most open cultures have their limits. Similarly, I've found that even in the most broken and fearful cultures, there can be great opportunity to speak your truth if you do it well. Why? Because when the leadership actually hears real – valuable and egoless – truth spoken they experience it like a breath a fresh air and can often reward the speaker. In the more fearful cultures, the fearless really stand out. I recommend that you look at your personal opportunities to speak your truth even in the face of the environment you're in. In many ways you have little to lose and everything to gain. But be careful and speak carefully, without ego and be sure not to turn it into a "win-lose" conversation. That can stymie even the most productive conversation when the listener can't get above their own ego.

      Good luck!

  11. Sam Welch says:

    Dana, Your article is splendid. Telling the truth sometimes wrecks the "investment" someone in higher management has made in a mistaken idea, a flawed concept, a decision that is about to cause a train wreck. Some managers simply cannot stand the agony of being "found out" due to a mistake. In academe, where I hang my hat, this tendency is found at all levels of educational structure. And what it "teaches" students is a horrible life skill inclination. The article I have attached gets into the "works" of why new truth is disbelieved. Thanks for writing a great article. – Sam Welch
    http://www.leadershipnow.com/leadingblog/2011/10/

  12. Al Watts says:

    Right on! When I ask senior leaders what they believe the biggest barrier to their own organization's integrity is, in most cases they say it's a reluctance of workers to speak up. In some cases, no doubt leaders themselves contribute to that; sometimes it may also be a false fear of speaking up that says more about an individual. In any event, we can all agree that truth-telling, and establishing cultures that are conducive to that, contribute significantly to effectiveness and engagement. More on truth-telling in the "Authenticity" chapter of Navigating Integrity – Transforming Business As Usual Into Business At Its best: http://www.integro-inc.com/About/NavigatingIntegr

  13. practicalgirl says:

    I agree and have experienced this myself. Much of it has to be "packaged and delivered" in the right way. That in itself takes some time and crafting and many folks would just call it "spinning". But, if the truth is really important to you and you know that it puts a potentially positive change in the forefront of Executive minds, it's worth it. Now, having said that, the ego problem sometimes becomes so big that it does not matter how something is served up. If you are not "the person" it's not going anywhere. In my opinion, yes I said my opinion…not fact…I feel like ego is the central problem for most of the issues we are delaing with in the US from economy, to education, to environment. If people would set their egos aside, we could become a much more productive nation.

  14. mke says:

    I think it's a blend of perceptions: the individual might see a circumstance as truth when they might not be privy to the whole picture or in some cases they are just plain wrong. Conversely, the boss sometimes needs to figure out that Emperor's New Clothes is not the ideal way. I wish both sides would approach it as a learning/teaching moment for genuine conversation and give and take regardless of who is "right"

  15. GAK says:

    This article has obviously hit a sore spot, just based on the volume of responses you have received. I, like several of those head of me have been "benched", because I dared to voice concerns about what I believed to be a poorly planned task that was doomed to fail. My VP's "easy button" attitude didn't want to slow the process down long enough to think through the suggestions and I was tagged (I found out from others) as a trouble-maker. I now belong to the majority who allow the Bobble-Heads to rubber stamp decisions, and make sure I am poised for the damage control that is to follow. I firmly believe a leader worth his/her salt would welcome someone to play devil's advocate with a proposed project. I would rather find out now where it will fall apart and make course corrections, than have to deal with the cleanup and embarrassment from failure.

  16. natalia broussel says:

    the name of her company is shesconnected and her name is donna.

  17. Natalia broussel says:

    I agree. I was once an employee for a multimedia company that marketed to women. The CEO treated us all like garbage and only a handful of times did she congratulate us for our efforts. It seemed that nothing we had done was right and that were always doing everything wrong. This is only a fraction of the reason the turnover rate at her social media agency is so high. For example, a PR profession refused to start work after spending half of a day shadowing with her and her team.

  18. [...] Is your ego in the way of your success? (Your people might think so) | SmartBlog on Leadership- Leadership: if employees are afraid to speak their mind you get 5.8% lower shareholder return http://t.co/cc0mtXwe (ping @Arvegard) [...]

  19. Dana Theus says:

    Wow. Thanks for all the additional comments (somehow my notifications failed). Yes, GAK, I think this is a sore spot – both on the boss side who don't receive good insight (as Al says) and – especially – on the employee/manager/leader side who put forth good insight only to have it ignored, put aside or – worse – become the basis of a penalty. I agree with Practicalgal and Same that ego is a HUGE problem in business today, but I think most of that is that our business culture just loves to slam failure and it really takes a strong constitution, vision and personal power base to stay in there and not let the failure junkies get us down and make us give up.

    How to tackle the cultural challenge is much harder than how to handle the personal challenge. That, we can all do something about. And it starts by learning how to speak up well, without poking the boss in the ego. The "good" ones will try to work with you when you do it well – and this means giving up our personal need to be right. It takes a little work to learn to do this well, but it's much easier than it sounds.

    Great discussion, everyone!

  20. [...] second was a SmartBlog Leadership article by Dana Theus, titled Is your ego in the way of your success?  (Your people might think so).  Dana’s article contains some powerful data about the effectiveness of organizations where [...]

  21. [...] we must be willing to stop identifying ourselves as bodies to ultimately succeed.    As we are going through our everyday experiences the ego is always the first one to speak in respect…then the space will be left free for the right mind to give its interpretation of the situation. [...]

  22. Erich_Lagasse says:

    Being fearful that what you say might bring negative repercussions at work probably means you are not working at you full potential. I think employees must be able to find a balance where they can express their thoughts and feelings, but in an educated and thoughtful manner. We have been reviewing different aspects http://academy.justjobs.com/dont-suck-at-your-job that affect the workplace to help employees feel better and be more productive. I hope it helps.