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Speaking Truth to Power: Perspectives from an Organization Development Practitioner

"You Have Only Been Talking About Others."

A statement from Charles, an Organization Development Consultant, charged to support the transformation of a client organization. Facing him was Lee, an executive director, a high-flying leader, with 25 years of successful transformation projects under his belt.

Lee, jumped on an offensive,

“Of course! Whenever I ask questions, I am greeted with silence. These are experienced managers, they cannot be so stupid, right? Or maybe they are!”

Charles remained silent. Multiple thoughts crossed his mind, “Is this career suicide? Lee is being defensive. What should I do?” The norm is to be deferential to senior leaders. It feels unnatural and uncomfortable to go against the grain.

Yet, in his discovery interviews, he has heard from Lee’s direct reports. One of them, a director with 1000 strong people under him, confided,

“I have 30 years of experience, yet, I need to think very hard, should I speak up in Lee’s meetings? Nobody likes to be called ‘stupid’.”

This is the problem in the organization. Charged to transform in these disruptive times, Lee is under pressure to make change happen quickly. Immensely bright, sharp and fast, he has formulated the plan and wants his people to act quickly. But the lack of open debate and the fear of being blamed is thwarting the transformation plans.

Charles took a deep breath and chose to stay on course, nothing will improve if the blame culture and behaviours of the leadership team remain the same. He observes Lee, who has calmed down a little after discharging his impatience and frustration. He looked at Charles squarely, “I know I have a part in this.”

The admission of culpability was a spark. The conversation delved into how Lee is working with his leadership team and Charles offered,

“I want to work with you through this change. To do this, I want you to trust me as a partner. I will share honest observations about you and the team, so you can consider what is most productive for you.”

Lee nodded, for once he was the quiet one.

At the end of the meeting, Charles met with the manpower director, Amy, who asked, “Did you do something with Lee? He asked me how he has been showing up at meetings.” Charles smiled and said nothing. His question to Amy is a sign that Lee has received the feedback and is open to change.

After Charles recounted his experience in applying Flawless Consulting skills, I asked him, “What gave you the nerve to confront a senior leader?”

Three things:

  1. Having the language to describe resistance directly and yet compassionately. Not sugar-coating, being politically correct or dropping hints, all of these are likely to be ineffective.

  2. The role play practices were realistic. Charles quipped, “The trainer who played the client was similarly aggressive like this leader. I realised it wasn’t not so bad being direct.”

  3. The choice to be of service. We spoke about serving the client vs serving our own self-interest, choosing courage vs. playing safe. Midwiving change is not a technical function, it is about people and purpose. We need to stay clean and not bring our own issues and bias into client engagements.

So here is the difference in the conversation:


The old conversation

The conversation with the Flawless Consulting® language

The consultant knows the client is part of the problem and tries to give feedback.

“Mr Client, it will be good if the team can speak openly about their concerns so we can refine the transformation plans and avoid downstream problems. Open communication is very important to the success of this transformation effort.” (Feedback is non specific and not focused on the leader)

“Mr Client, you raise your voice and use words like ‘stupid’ during meetings. This leads to the team feeling small and unsafe, so they stay quiet. This means we don’t have open debates to improve the transformation plans and problems crop up downstream.” (Feedback is direct, specific and neutral)

The client reacts to the feedback by blaming others, “They are always quiet when I ask questions, they are leaders too…” The consultant can respond in various ways.

Being logical

Staying on the technical side of things


Proving our data is right

(Reacting to the client’s resistance)

“You have only been talking about others.” Stay silent. Understand the client’s concerns. (Describing the resistance and understanding the client’s inner concerns)

As the saying goes, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together". The role of the Organization Development practitioner is to speak truth to power. Only then can we support transformation.

Experienced shared by a senior organization development consultant who cannot be named to maintain client confidentiality.

Case Study: Giving Feedback to Leaders | Flawless Consulting®
Flame Centre | Future Skills Institute


If you're curious about:

  • How to build trust with clients, help and add value.

  • How to discover client needs, provide support and effective recommendations.

  • How to develop a collaborative relationship and give feedback.

Check out the Flawless Consulting® framework, tools and skills.


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