Speaking Truth to Power: The Prototypical Workplace Courage Act

April 20, 2021

Do you push back on operating policies or strategic objectives that you think are off base? Do you say no to problematic orders or expectations from above? Are you honest with those above you about harmful or unethical behavior? These, and other types of, “truth to power” actions are the most common behaviors labeled courageous in workplaces. They’re risky, worthy acts: It is undoubtedly often difficult to challenge, confront, or defy those above yourself in a hierarchy; it’s also necessary if we care about protecting and promoting the well-being of others, learning and growing, and creating change and innovation. 

For example, Jess was offended when her boss used a derogatory term about her colleague’s sexual orientation and decided to speak up after realizing that neither she nor anyone else had spoken up in the moment. The next day, she approached her boss and explained why the language was not acceptable to her personally and also problematic for the company. 

Unfortunately, opportunities to speak truth to power are often not taken. Safety, security, and other self-interest concerns take precedence over doing what we know is right. To do your own truth to power assessment, take the simple, free Workplace Courage Acts Index. And consider reading my book Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work for strategies and inspiration on speaking more truth to power in safe, effective ways.

Written By

Jim Detert

Jim Detert is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration in the Leadership and Organizational Behavior area at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration and a Professor of Public Policy at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Prior to joining UVA, he taught at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management and was the faculty director for the School's leadership initiative.