Why Executive Team Members Don't Always Speak-Up And Tell Their Truth.

The Financial Times today (18th February 2015) published an article entitled “AstraZeneca line up Pharma critic to board”. 

Apparently this new board member, a US scientist, does something highly unusual…

                             …they speak their mind!

How refreshing as speaking directly and honestly is something so few people do in business.

There is a concept called parrhesia (**).  In essence, the practice of parrhesia is to speak your truth, to be truth-teller, regardless of the consequences for you.  This new AstraZeneca board member may, just may, be one of the very few people in business who practice parrhesia.

In fact, my 2014 research into the drivers of dysfunctional behaviour in executive teams revealed the number one dysfunctional behaviour in top teams is....

                                                                                           ....a lack of direct/honest conversations. 

Executives don't always speak-up and tell their truth.

Comments from our interviewees included:

“We dance around the handbag of honesty”

“If someone spoke their truth they would be isolated”

“You have to time when to be honest”

Eighteen interviewees mentioned that executive team members either didn’t speak the truth and / or talk directly.  I believe the reasons for this are likely manifold, for example:

  • Perhaps for some it goes back to childhood when they might have been told “children should be seen and not heard”.
  • Perhaps they have a dominant boss subduing debate.
  • Or it could be due to transference, as one interviewee mentioned their chief executive was like a father figure, and I wonder whether they would have spoken up in front of their father. (Click here to read about transference)
  • Or perhaps because on an unconscious level people are aware that in organisations people perceive those who “endorse their ideas less than those who engage in supportive forms of voice (speaking up).” (Burris, 2012).
  • Some new executive team members can lose some of their personal impact if they start to suffer from the impostor syndrome as a result of their promotion.  This in turn makes them less likely to speak-up.
  • A lack of open and honest conversations is recognised as a flaw of many executive team and this can mean team members are less likely to raise their point (click here to read: How To Get An Executive Team To Have Open And Honest Conversations)
  • Team members on a subconscious level can perceive there are risks associated with speaking-up such as the risk of looking ignorant, risk of looking incompetent, risk of being seen as intrusive or the risk of being seen as negative.
  • One interviewee commented “We are competitive so there is less honesty (between us).”  In their case this likely refers to their perceived need to shore-up their silo and ensure they receive a larger bonus than peers (aka greed).

My view is that executive teams in which all team members speak their mind, have richer debates and can make better decisions.

Our observations of top teams indicates those that have richer debates have high levels of trust within the team, dysfunctional behaviours have been reduced to minimal levels, executive team members have high-levels of personal awareness and are in-tune with the team's dynamics.


Financial Times article quoted - click here to read.

Parrhesia - please visit this link to explore this topic (takes you to an external website)

Burris, E. R. (2012). The risks and rewards of speaking up: Managerial responses to employee voice. Academy Of Management Journal, 55(4), 851-875.

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