I met with the head of the European region right after a daylong meeting of a global leadership team. I asked what he thought of the decisions the team had made. He said the meeting was “the usual nonsense. We nod our heads, and go back to our parts of the world and do whatever we want.”

Another client, the leader of an IT function, was told to reduce headcount by 20% but not miss deadlines on high priority projects. Despite disagreeing with the wisdom of the decision, she laid off eight programmers. She then hired a flotilla of temporary programmers to meet her schedule targets. This ended up costing more and led to lower morale of the remaining employees.

And still another: At a large town hall meeting, I watched the director of a manufacturing plant stray from his ‘talking points’ and go on a long, irritable rant. Dismayed workers shuffled out of the auditorium, shoulders slumping. As we returned to his office, the plant director asked the manager of quality how he thought the meeting went. The manager replied, “Not bad, I think it went pretty well actually.”

Three different stories with something in common: In each, someone did not speak the most important truth when it counted. Instead, they silently lied.

We’ve heard the story of the ‘emperor with no clothes,’ in which a young subject told the king the truth of his nakedness, while the king’s courtiers said nothing. It should be astonishing that this fable is still current, but it is. Highly paid people close to power often lie by remaining silent, and the costs pile up.

Corporate courtiers

When I asked all three ‘courtiers’ why they remained silent despite possessing useful information, they had different reasons. The head of the European region said he didn’t want to ‘upset the apple cart.’ The IT director said her priority was to get the projects done and not ‘fight city hall.’ The manager of quality complained his boss didn’t listen to his feedback so he stopped giving it.

What all three failed to mention was the truth: Through their silence they were acting to defend themselves against the assumed disapproval of those whose endorsement they viewed as more important than the needs of their organizations.

It’s easy for me to notice these moments: I’m self-employed and not beholden to a boss. Yet I also silently lie: by not telling a client that his ideas for a training program won’t work, by avoiding confronting a client about his annoying habit of interrupting his direct reports, by failing to provide feedback to a colleague that might help her be even more effective.

People at the top don’t make it easy to confront them. Insulated and privileged, they are acutely unaware of their power. They often inadvertently discourage receiving information that disconfirms their own conclusions or aggravates their egos.

The hard choice

So what is one to do about this inescapable reality? It is easy to say we should all have the courage to speak what we really feel, consequences be damned. But no amount of advice will keep us from calculating the risk-benefit ratio of telling difficult truths. Our calculations, however, are generally skewed in favor of self-censorship.

Yet many of us have much more power than we give ourselves credit for; our organizations need ‘us’ as much as we need ‘them.’

My retired father owned a pharmacy for many decades. My brothers and I grew up working there. My dad is an intelligent and humble man who worked in a field where doctors were kings and everyone else vassals, including pharmacists.

When I was a kid I used to overhear my father on the phone while I was filling gelatin capsules or selling shampoo. He was always incredibly polite. But when he spoke to doctors who mistakenly prescribed drugs that had contraindications with other medicines or might otherwise be harmful, his tone noticeably changed.

At these times he was firm and declarative. He told them that the prescribed medications put their patients at risk, and he offered alternatives. He knew these MDs egos’ would be pinched yet he didn’t waver. My father knew his obligations and fulfilled them. Some doctors took their business elsewhere.

I think of this story a lot when listening to people justify why they didn’t do what they knew was the right thing to do. And I need to remember this story when I am gauging whether to silently lie or speak my own truth to power.