Sub-theme 59: Speaking Truth to Power: Organizing for the Greater Good

Dirk Lindebaum
University of Liverpool, UK
Yiannis Gabriel
University of Bath, UK
Deanna Geddes
Temple University, USA

Call for Papers

The encouragement to 'dare to know' (Holt & den Hond, 2013) in organization studies has been equated with the "experience of respecting and upending the world into which we are thrown through enquiry" (p. 1587). But daring to know is not tantamount to daring to speak one’s mind with courage and directness, let alone voicing uncomfortable truths to those in power.

In this sub-theme, we are interested both in what propels individuals to explore provocative terrains of knowledge and to articulate arguments and views that are likely to entail significant risks for them individually, while doing so is often of utmost social value (e.g., to blow the whistle on immoral business activities). This raises topical questions vis-à-vis prominent whistleblowing cases in the media. Why is it that some individuals, against institutional and peer pressures, decide to speak truth to power? As a political statement, speaking truth to power does not merely reflect the moral imperative not to lie but, equally important, to speak out against moral transgressions.

We interpret organizing for the greater good in the spirit of questioning established assumptions, speaking out against injustice and resisting the temptation of a quiet life through silence (Raftopoulou & Lindebaum, 2013). This has become increasingly difficult in our times, when safety and security are regularly invoked as justifications for suppressing inquiry and dissent. The high profile case of Edward Snowden and his revelations of wide-spread surveillance by US security organizations have brought these issues to the public's attention. He and other whistleblowers represent our current cultural archetype of the individual who speaks with parrhesia (i.e., the courage to make accessible for public scrutiny 'dangerous' or unpalatable views and facts). As Foucault has argued "parrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain type of relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty" (Foucault & Pearson, 2001: 19).

Individuals who speak truth to power risk not only personal vilification, scapegoating and smearing, but also losing their friends and families, suffering exclusions and public humiliation. Yet, can organizational or national interests be serviced through the dissemination of lies and the suppression of uncomfortable truths? In the Kantian tradition of ethics, what would be the meaning of lies in a world where no one is ever expected to tell the truth? In the absence of truth, transactional costs of society increase, thereby negatively affecting inter and intra-organizational processes.

Speaking truth to power has extensive consequences for organizational order and stability, regardless of whether the truths spoken are literal truths (facts), normative truths (values) or emotional truths (truly felt emotions). For instance, being genuine in expressing how one feels about certain situation (that is, speaking truthfully) at work is a delicate act – it can help sustain or destabilize the social order (Fineman, 2001).

In times of national, international and organizational mistrust, when conspiracy theories easily proliferate and paranoid fears take hold of people, speaking truth to power is neither easy nor straightforward. Yet, its contribution to the greater public good has never been more urgently needed. In the spirit of this, we are inviting contributions exploring some of the following issues:

  • What shapes does the courage to speak assume in organizations and what are the major forces that seek to frustrate it?
  • What links organizational forms of parrhesia to its earlier incarnations in Socratic and cynical philosophy, satire and Christian theology?
  • What emotions (e.g., anger, indignation, shame, guilt) motivate the willingness to speak truth to power (see e.g., Geddes & Stickney, 2011), and how are such emotions potentially silenced? What role do approach/avoidance tendencies of emotions play in this process (e.g., fear of social exclusion leading to silence, Lindebaum, 2009)?
  • What discourses does the courage to speak draw on in a 'post-emotional society'?
  • How can we distinguish between courage to speak truth to power from hate speech, conspiracy theories and other rants that are peddled under the guise of courage?
  • What part does courage to speak or, its converse, silence play in organizational narratives and stories (Gabriel, 2000)?
  • Who gives whistleblowing a bad name and why? What role does power play here?
  • Who dominates the discourses, popular and academic, of whistleblowing and why?
  • What is the role of institutional and legal defense mechanisms in the emergence of whistleblowers?
  • What happens when values collide (for example, transparency vs. restraint, or sensitivity to the feelings of others vs. free speech)?
  • How and to what extent do contemporary organizational identities engage with parrhesia?

Please note that there is also an associated call for papers for a special issue in the Journal of Business Ethics, entitled "Moral Emotions and Ethics in Organizations". The deadline is March 1, 2015.

Please use this link for more information:




  • Fineman, S. (2001): "Emotions and organizational control." In: R. Payne & C.L. Cooper (eds.): Emotions at Work: Theory, Research and Applications for Management. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, pp. 219–240.
  • Foucault, M., & Pearson, J. (2001): Fearless Speech. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), distributed by MIT Press.
  • Gabriel, Y. (2000): Storytelling in Organizations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Geddes, D., & Stickney, L.T. (2011): "The trouble with sanctions: Organizational responses to deviant anger displays at work." Human Relations, 64 (2), 201–230.
  • Holt, R., & den Hond, F. (2013): "Sapere Aude." Organization Studies, 34 (11), 1587–1600.
  • Lindebaum, D. (2009): "Rhetoric or remedy? A critique on developing emotional intelligence." Academy of Management: Learning and Education, 8 (2), 225–237.
  • Raftopoulou, C.E., & Lindebaum, D. (2013): Linking autoethnography and identity theory to make sense of power abuses by cabin crews. Paper presented at the British Academy of Management Conference in Liverpool, UK, September 10–12, 2013.


Dirk Lindebaum is a Reader in Management at University of Liverpool Management School, UK. One stream of his research activities pertains to organizational phenomena that involve emotional processes broadly speaking. Another stream that he has pursued of late concerns the increasing visibility of neuroscientific theories and methods in the study of organizational behaviour.
Yiannis Gabriel is Professor of Organizational Theory and Deputy Dean of the School of Management, University of Bath, UK He is well known for his work on organizational storytelling and narratives, psychoanalytic studies, leadership, management learning, the culture and politics of contemporary consumption, and the study of genocide from an organizational perspective.
Deanna Geddes is Associate Professor and Chair of the Human Resource Management Department at Temple University's Fox School of Business and Management, USA. She also currently serves as Chair the Conflict Management Division of the Academy of Management. Her research interests include workplace anger and aggression, organizational emotions, and issues associated with providing effective performance feedback.