How to Navigate between Truth and Safety at Work

A while ago I had an interchange with someone that got me thinking.  It went like this: 

“I had been mistreated for so long that the good parts and the financial security of the job just finally were outweighed by my loss of self-esteem.  So, I rehearsed for weeks how to tell my boss I was leaving in a peaceful, non-blaming way.  Just that it was time for me to move on.  I went into his office and made my rehearsed statement.”

“What was his response?”

The woman said, “I couldn’t believe it.  What a joke!  He actually said, ‘Are you unhappy?  Is there another place in the company you’d rather be?'”

I replied, “So it seems that you felt his response was just more of the same lack of understanding.   Did his question seem real to you?”

“Well, you know, I have to admit, now that I look at it, it did seem real.  But I was so shocked and I had so definitely made up my mind that the only possibility was to leave that I didn’t even take it seriously.”

I took a moment to feel into that surprising moment when her boss asked, “Are you unhappy?” How could it be that he didn’t know that she was unhappy? Of course, I’m not the boss here, but I’d like to make a guess. It comes from understanding a power-differential dynamic that can, if not recognized by the persons in both up-power and down-power positions, creates poignant and painful work situations like the one above.

It’s simple.  The person with positional power (i.e., the boss, supervisor, therapist, teacher, CEO), whether they own it or not, has the power to dismiss, assess, promote, demote, and assign tasks that the person in the down-power position must follow. The person in the down-power position, therefore, is at risk of losing job or favor by offering truthful (but critical) feedback. So, down-power employees, like the woman in the story, withhold the truth. The up-power employer or supervisor then only or primarily hears good or neutral feedback, which leads to continued or even increased insensitivity and/or disrespectful or manipulative behaviors.

There are other possible reasons that those in up-power authority positions misuse or abuse their power. To name a few:

  • they are caught in dysfunctional systems that are outside their control,
  • they didn’t get adequate training in how to use their positional power sensitively and skillfully,
  • they think they can get away with it,
  • they over-identify with their up-power role and lose the perspective of the down-power position, or
  • they want so much to be non-hierarchical that they don’t carry out the responsibilities of their role with the strength and direction that is needed.

I want to focus on the feedback dynamic because it is the one we can have most impact with when we are in down-power positions. Most of us, like the woman in the story, think we have to choose between telling the whole truth OR emotional security and peace. And most of us have had experiences in which we told the truth and got hurt. Or we told a truth nobody else was willing to express and became the “lightning rod”—the one who takes the shock for everyone else. We end up sacrificing ourselves for our principles. Of course, as history shows, this is often the only way. It’s always good to stand up for what is right and just; however, it’s even better when you can do it skillfully, effectively, and without personal danger.

Shifting from thinking you have to choose between truth and safety is similar to another big shift: from thinking you have to choose between power and heart to understanding that you can link power with heart. This shift is about using “smart power”, as in the article about Hilary Clinton in a recent issue of Time.  Smart power in working with those up-power to you is using both compassion and skill to give feedback in ways that will be easier for them to hear. By so doing you’ll create a problem-resolving response instead of a negative or defensive one.

In my Right Use of Power classes we talk about how to be more effective in working with superiors.  Here are a few suggestions that have come from real-life experience:

1. Offer authentic appreciation
2. Link a complaint with a request for change
3. Ask for a good time to talk
4. Avoid taking something on alone when there is significant risk—join with others
5. Be specific and describe the impact on you or system
6. Name possible solutions and be willing to be part of the solution
7. Try to understand the other’s position even if you don’t agree
8. Focus more on the future than the past
9. Identify possible differences in style
10. Find where you have leverage
11. Look for what you CAN do instead of what you can’t
12. Change a gripe into a curiosity
13. Look for the larger perspective

In a challenging situation, start by finding compassion for everyone concerned. Then, think and feel into the likely implications of several choices in order to choose what to try first. For example, what might the woman in this story do? In her shoes, I would try #3, then #1, then #2 (possibly including #5 and #6). Use whatever you try to help discern and refine your next step. One of the most difficult things, however, is to know when to persist and when to let go.  Sometimes progress is so small it’s hard to see. In To Kill a Mockingbird, even lawyer Atticus Finch’s skill doesn’t save an innocent black man from being convicted of murder. One of the townspeople comments:  “It’s Macon, Georgia in 1935 and Atticus actually got that jury deliberatin’ for hours an’ hours.  Now that’s somethin’.”  Lawyer Finch had to let go without getting the result he wanted.

When I was teaching in Japan, I gave my students these directions:  “Stand facing your partner. Now imagine that this partner is in an up-power position and you are having difficulty. Notice your stance, your feelings, your impulses.Name these aloud if you wish:  ‘Anger, stiff, tight, throat hurts, want to shake the other person, eyes narrowed.’ Okay, now turn your back to your partner and take three breaths. I want you now to change only one thing. You don’t have to even like this person. Just take on an attitude of curiosity. Now, turn around and face your partner again and notice your responses. Are they different?”  The participants were quite amazed. One man said, “The wall I felt between us just disappeared.”  Another said, “I shifted from focusing on my partner as tough and mean to seeing him as just another person and the problem was like a ball between us.”

Using our power with wisdom and skill, even when we are in a down-power position, can enable us to tell the truth to a higher-up and still be secure….and often effective.

Related Articles:
Right Use of Power: The Effects of Forgiveness
Staging a Power Shift
When Co-Dependents Are Identified in the Workplace

© Copyright 2011 by Cedar Barstow. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Kole

    November 17th, 2011 at 4:08 PM

    It is just that for many of us it is hard to feel like we have to stand up to those in charge. We become scared and intimidated instead of feeling our strength grow. It is always hard to go into these kids of situations and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are making the right decison. But that is when you have to have a whole lot of self confidence and go in there and stand your ground.

  • Walker

    November 18th, 2011 at 7:07 PM

    Most of us have a habit of hearing what we want to hear and supervisors are no different.

  • marlon samuels

    November 18th, 2011 at 9:47 PM

    the problem with being open as much as an employee would like is that the boss thinks he is always right and any kind of negative feedback is taken personally by most then creates a danger to the job itself and we all know how the job situation is if I had to choose between giving an honest feedback and keeping my job,I’m sorry but I’d have to choose my job.

  • Skylar Z.

    November 20th, 2011 at 11:37 PM

    She flipped at her boss offering her a job somewhere else in the company when she said she couldn’t handle working there? What was she expecting? Him to say that she couldn’t quit and was fired or just to say so long?

    A good boss attempts to resolve the issues and/or offer alternatives before they accept your resignation. She had a good boss and didn’t even know it.

  • Grady Paulson

    November 21st, 2011 at 12:07 AM

    If I hated my job and my boss asked me if I was unhappy with my position, and offered a better position I’d be content with I would certainly rethink my negative opinion of him, as well as take the move!

    It’s nuts to begin all over again at a new company when you’re already familiar with the staff and the working practices of the one you’re in.

  • Milo Eastwood

    November 21st, 2011 at 12:12 AM

    I think she’s the problem, not him. Obviously one of those needy types that wants praised every five minutes for basically turning up and doing what she’s paid for. We hear employees go on and on about how they need recognition. Heck, you get a paycheck in your bank account: what more recognition do you want??? Grow up and do your job.

    There’s plenty more fish in the employee pool these days, you know and it’s not that easy to find new employment as it used to be.

  • Kelsey Leonard

    November 21st, 2011 at 12:24 AM

    Not all bosses are tyrants, and many will easily listen when you have problems with the workplace. Do you want to know why? Because if they fire a member of staff or that person resigns, they have to answer to THEIR boss. If they lose a perfectly good employee, questions will be asked. They need to have the answers to them in their back pocket.

  • N.J

    November 21st, 2011 at 10:29 AM

    A topic that makes sense to be spoken of…there is just so much pressure at work that we all experience this situation every once in a while-whether to be truthful or play safe…It could be a simple thing about your manager slacking off and your boss enquiring about it or could be something else but the choice is as tough as it gets…!

  • Kenneth Wilde

    November 24th, 2011 at 1:22 AM

    Bosses are smart. They know it’s time consuming and costs a fortune to train a new employee from scratch. It is much easier to retrain an existing employee for an internal transfer that understands how your company’s infrastructure works.

    Plus they know you’ll have an exit interview with HR and want to be sure you’re not going to badmouth them for not doing whatever. That’s why they play nice-unless you’re totally incompetent.

    If you are useless they will count your resignation as a blessing and snatch it our your hand accepting it before you change your mind.

  • Sadie X.

    November 24th, 2011 at 2:14 AM

    This actually happened to me. I told our assistant manager, my direct boss, that my workload was increasing every month, as were my responsibilities, and that I did not have the time nor the resources to work on those things. I certainly did not walk in empty-handed without ideas on how to streamline the dept and the business. I suggested many alternatives in a very long memo on how we could address that.

    What did he do? Barely glanced at it, shoved it in his desk and let me walk instead of offering to fix it because apparently “everything’s running just fine my way as it is”. Yeah right. The manager was on vacation and Robbie was enjoying his little power plays. Seeing no other way out, I quit there and then. I wasn’t willing to cover his butt any longer by doing so much work that technically should have been his.

    A few weeks later, the manager of the department called me at home and said “Sadie, three things. Firstly, I heard that Robbie let you leave with no attempt to stop you because you were voicing a complaint about scope creep. Second, I read your memo. There’s some stellar ideas in there. We found it in Robbie’s desk when his office was being cleaned out for reasons I can’t discuss. Third, we need an assistant manager to fill Robbie’s role.”

    Revenge is sweet. :)

  • Zachary N.

    November 28th, 2011 at 12:03 PM

    @Sadie: LMAO! He got what he deserved then. I’m glad you were able to get his job and he was kicked out without you even doing anything. Serves him right. Rule number one to keep employees happy: if you give any employee a substantially larger workload, you make sure their paycheck matches their effort. It’s only fair. Nobody goes to work for the good of their health.

  • Cedar Barstow

    December 18th, 2011 at 9:43 PM

    What a great discussion about this tricky issue of dealing with people who are superior. A number of you gave examples of something important to keep in mind: there are many reasons for bosses to want to keep employees. This helps. And, you named the obvious…there are many wonderful bosses and some very challenging ones. Part of being skillful is discerning which kind of boss you have (that’s not the hard part, usually) and then figuring out appropriate strategies based on understanding the nature of the boss you have. What a great story, Sadie! Cedar

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