Listening For Truth From Power

Last month I saw an article about a courageous flight attendant in the UK who noticed ice on the plane’s wings as it began take-off and alerted the pilots at the last moment, potentially saving the lives of everyone aboard.

As the article makes clear, what made this act courageous was that the flight attendant spoke “truth to power,” potentially putting their career at risk by speaking up. Imagine being that person the moment before making a decision that would abort take-off. (At Ridge we call this a “candor moment” when you decide if you’re going to speak up, what you’re going to say, and how.)

  • First, you’re potentially calling out the pilot for an embarrassing and catastrophic oversight – not your boss but clearly someone with more authority than you.
  • Then there are the passengers who would be angry and concerned about aborting take-off and the delays that follow.
  • The powers-that-be at the airline might flash through your mind too – they’d hear about the hassle and have to manage passenger reactions in-person and online, rescheduling missed connections, etc.

There’s a lot going on in that candor moment, and the potential consequences to the flight attendant were real enough that the story was reported by a UK agency that “encourages airline staff to raise safety concerns with complete anonymity.”

What I found interesting in this situation is that rather than get angry, the pilots thanked the flight attendant for bringing the icing to their attention; they had seen snow on the wings (not a safety issue) but not the ice underneath. They were grateful for the attendant’s actions.

Still, the attendant waited until the last minute, which speaks to the cultural barriers to speaking up in organizational life. The report notes three moments, well before take-off, when the flight attendant might have spoken up and didn’t for the reason noted above. If the flight attendant had felt comfortable telling the pilot in any one of those moments, “just so you know, there’s some ice on the left wing,” there would never have been a candor moment or an incident or an article. The problem would have been identified and solved before it became a potential crisis that required courage to avert.

Although these power dynamics are built into every organization, they are invisible to most leaders. Even leaders who are open to hearing difficult news (like the pilots) don’t realize how hard – and rare – it is for people to speak up. And yet that information can be extremely valuable in catching problems when they’re small, before they snowball. It doesn’t matter how approachable the leader is. The onus is on the speaker to speak without knowing what the consequences may be.

If you really want people to speak up, shift the onus from the speaker to the leader. If you’re a leader, assume the responsibility of inviting candor from your team and listen to what they have to say. Lower the “candor moment” bar. Make it a pattern, not just a one-time event; the fear of reprisal won’t ever go away. Leadership and change expert John Kotter advises leaders to “over communicate” in order to truly get their points across. Similarly, you may need to “over listen” for people to rise above their reticence when speaking up. And, of course, don’t punish them when they do. Shooting the messenger doesn’t change the fact that there’s ice on the wing.

PS. If you’re interested in more tips on getting out of your own way as a leader, this might be of interest.

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