On truth telling

The question of speech

One of the central precepts of liberal democracy is freedom of speech. In political theory, debates persist as to where the limits of that liberty might sit, but overall it is a key strut in the system in which we find ourselves. As citizens, we are endlessly reassured that we are empowered to give voice to opinions that we might hold – and the state is seen as the guarantor of that entitlement.

This opens up for us the complex web of opinions, attitudes and positions that cross-hatch the body politic and the wider social conversation. Our speech can be constrained from every cardinal point of the political compass, with authoritarian attitudes no longer the sole preserve of just one perspective on that dial. At the same time, the notion of unbridled speech feels unconscionable, particularly when so much public conversation takes place via social media, where traditional expectations of conduct and standards of civility have seemingly evaporated.

That technology is also said to limit peoples engagement with ideas contrary to their own. This is the notion that our modern day engagement with the world of ideas is channelled through significant filter bubbles, epistemic bubbles, and echo chambers. These respectively are the limitation of access to ideas that is generated algorithmically by providers; our closing off of avenues to new ideas by blocking those with whom we disagree; and choosing solely to consort with people with whom we are in agreement.

The latter is perhaps the most pernicious in outline, for the following reason,

Echo chambers are far more entrenched and far more resistant to outside voices than epistemic bubbles. Echo chamber members have been prepared to face contrary evidence. Their echo-chambered worldview has been arranged to dismiss that evidence at its source.

C. Thi Nguyen (2019) The problem of living inside echo chambers.

The best we might suggest is that speech needs to be carefully negotiated – but that candour and freedom of expression are things that need careful attention, in terms of the protection, not least because power – however it might manifest itself, whether through overbearing prohibition of speaking out or through regimes of silence where limitations on what can and cannot be said are socially activated – desperately needs that challenge.

Speech at work

If we set aside our rights and responsibilities as citizens and focus instead on our subjectification as employees in a capitalist market, then even the illusion of empowerment through free speech evaporates. Consider for a moment the shift in labelling that occurs in respect to someone speaking up in a corporate setting: they are branded with the term “whistleblower”, which seems to be imbued with a negativity and distinguishes the person – through its precise use – as an outlier, someone inhabiting alterity rather than the realm of normalcy.

In the NHS, the fact that its organisations appoint people to act as Freedom To Speak Up Guardians signals very clearly that this liberty is not ordinarily honoured by the climates generated by leadership in this context. It is not about people speaking candidly up and down the hierarchy: it is instead something that has to be actively promoted and subtly mediated.

This is not to denigrate the efforts of those guardians, working as they do to facilitate voice in the workplace. Instead, it is drawing attention to the organisational deficits that require such facilitation in the first place.

So, the issue of truth-telling is complex in a social context…but all the more fraught in the organisational setting. And this has huge implications when you consider the role of organisation development and its practitioners. Specifically, what does – or can – OD do in order to engender organisational citizenship rather than encourage submissiveness on the part of human subjects in the corporate context.

The challenge of parrhesia

In our recent Radical Organisational Development practice workshop – the second in a series of seven, with each focusing on one aspect of the work we do and how we might embrace a more critical stance in that respect – we looked at truth-telling, using in particular the late-Foucauldian interpretation of the practice of parrhesia, which can be somewhat simplistically defined thus:

In our discussions, we explored the tension that exists for us in terms of serving the truth whilst serving the needs of the person who commissions our work. Ultimately, the danger implicit here is powerfully economic: we work in order to do a good job, of course, but underneath that motivation lies the dull compulsion of the economic…and the risk that we will lose our jobs or gain no further work in light of this. As one participant so beautifully expressed it,

Is the client the person who hires you or is ‘truth’ the client?

This looks to be a crucial question that we must hold close to our hearts as we make our way through the thickets of our day to day practice. But we must return to the specific quality of truth as a notion in the practice of parrhesia. Whilst truth has a slippery feel in our (post)modern context, it is worth anchoring our position by accepting – as the late Roy Bhaskar intimates in the undergirding of his development of critical realism – that a reality exists outwith our consciousness but is collectively negotiated via the myriad interpretations of those who experience it. This was evident in these selected comments by participants,

Personal, relative. I have no idea what THE truth [is], nor any ability to know. I am not even sure what MY truth is, which seems very fluid.

Knowing that my truth is different to that of other people, which creates dissonance

Our truths, my truth, the truth of others.

[T]ruth can be quite uncomfortable I guess

Into this mix come other profound and confounding factors, such as gender, race and rank…with the latter mediated by the notion that a collective of peers can generate a seemingly unassailable truth which those alongside, below, and indeed above will experience as a possible constraint. Truth-telling, then, insofar as it has an intimate relationship to the idea of power, may come easier to some than to others, in light of the advantage they might be seen to carry.

Importantly, one participant made the following impactful observation, which was that,

The truth you speak may not be your truth.

This serves to remind those working in and through organisations that the dominant discourse that shapes our subjectivity in that context – the cultural underpinnings; the climates fostered in groups of staff and by those seen to be in charge; the policies, processes, procedures and protocols that are negotiated across the space in which we work; the expectations that weigh down on us – and those that we apply to others; and the minute detail of the accepted practice that persists second by second as people come together in a wider mesh of power – permeates the way in which we think about and seek to do our work.

Hence, in some key instances, OD practitioners may find themselves honestly articulating a truth that, in reality, does not practically derive from their experience or indeed truly belong to them, were they to compare it to the values that they personally bring to their work. In such cases, we are not merely mouthpieces, spouting an agreed ideology; we have, instead, been comprehensively absorbed by the activity and thought that gave rise to that truth. It is not grafted on to us by sinister forces, but is instead an intrinsic part of our subject in light of our experience in this context. This is how, for example, we can find ourselves taking a strongly defensive position in respect to a piece of work that perhaps would not resonate for us, had we not been actively embroiled in it for the beginning.

There is a second aspect to this, one that compliments the idea that we might be speaking a truth that in all honesty is not ours. This perspective – advanced by another participant at the workshop – might see OD practitioners at best modulating (or, at worst, dampening down or expressly silencing) the expressed positions of those with whom we work at the sharp edge of our practice, pithily summarised thus,

Being an OD person: Sometimes expectation of collusion to massage the truth spoken by others

Lastly, our relationship to the context of our practice offers an additional layer of complication, outwith the ways in which we might be a unwitting conduit for a truth not truly our own and moderate the truths that emerge in the course of our work with people in organisational settings. This third challenge pivots around the complex matrix of truth-claims that we have accepting will exist in any human context and is expressed by one of the participants thus,

How can we challenge those who say “this is my truth” when they are being discriminatory?

Envisaging a different mode of practice

Two things arise in respect to how we might equip and embolden ourselves to speak truth in the organisational settings in which we work. First, we need to be mindful that the parrhesiastes – the person who actively assumes the role of truth-teller regardless of the personal risk that accrues to that act, needs to have focused on care of the self, a commitment to enhance and improve through a range of thought practices and attention to personal ethics. Establishing oneself as an exemplary person – that is to say, drafting your own subject, thereby working against the wider definitional frame of power/knowledge in which we are all implicated – is central to this commitment, not least because it creates grounds for trust between oneself and those to whom one is committed to speak the truth.

Second, mindful of the truths that we are privy to, including our own firmly held truth, we need to find a way wherein we acknowledge each of those narratives and the lived experience that lies behind it. Our work as OD practitioners, then, is not to merely to act as the truth-agent of the dominant discourse, merely echoing the truth that is privileged in organisational settings or indeed becoming absorbed by truths that – on reflection – we would not really recognise as our own. Instead, we should constellate ourselves in the web of truth-claims that exist in these contexts, the better to accelerate conversational exchange that is primed to explore and evaluate those positions.

Hence, as in the Kurosawa film Rashomon (1950), we will find ourselves in a confluence of narrative flows, all relating to a notionally shared experience. It will not be our job to anoint one of those flows as “The Truth” in this localised context; nor will we engineer this space in order to provide us with the opportunity to supplant all of these truths in favour of one that derives from power, for which we simply act as a channel.

This stance requires us to assume the role of parrhesiastes, with all of the implications that arise out of that in respect to committing ourselves to care of the self and establishing ourselves as exemplary in terms of our conduct. Foundationally, this is whence a radical OD practice would appear. The ethics that we embrace in this regard will generate trust across the workplaces in which we work – except for, quite possibly, in the Boardroom. In light of this, we need to use our parrhesia to nudge the leaders with whom we work also to embrace this practice authentically, so that they are best able to speak truth – and listen carefully to it, regardless of how threatening it might be to them.

Regardless of how slippery the concept might be – and our discussions underscored that fact very forcefully – organisational life urgently needs flooding with more rather than less truth. This is where those who believe in a different type of organisational life could intervene meaningfully – and support voices travelling from the bottom to the top (as well as across) rather than merely the loud voices that sit above, tightly grasping the purse strings and thereby feeling entitled to set the agenda.

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