Thursday, May 5, 2016

Speaking Up to the Boss: Not a Matter of Diction but a Model of DICTION!

Young professionals as well as accomplished leaders have one issue in common: “how to speak up to the boss”. Granted, young professionals are likely to be on cleft wicket in dealing with their bosses, given that they are at the start of their career but it is strange but true that even leaders who have made their mark need to be circumspect in how they speak and what they speak. Even the CEOs and founders of companies are accountable to investors and society. Of course, in the final analysis, all of us are accountable to our Supreme Boss, God Almighty! Such divine accountability being separate, in the normal human situation one tends to be reporting or accountable to one or more bosses. And, unfortunately, once one joins a firm, it is the boss who plays God till the very end of career. To aggravate matters, bosses may change but bossism won’t! 

Leadership style is the modern day euphemism for the earlier era bossism. While management experts have tried to make it appear as though bossism is limited to only the authoritarian or task oriented leadership styles, bossism has now become such a subtle but equally punchy concept that it permeates all leadership styles. Some may be lucky to get an apparently nice boss while fewer numbers could be exceptionally lucky to get to choose their apparently nice bosses. Most, however, have to endure bossy bosses! Bosses may be exceptional but there cannot be any exception to bossism. Under some leadership styles, bossism could be gross and crass while under some leadership styles it could be subtle and suave. As one starts his or her career journey at the bottom of the career pyramid, or recalibrates the career later on in life, one needs a robust capability to handle bossism.

Bossism defined

Bossism is closely associated with political organizations, from the times such organizations took shape. Bossism is a pejorative typically applied to leaders who control the selection of their political party’s candidates for elected office and dispense patronage without regard for public interest. It is unclear how this concept seeped into business or service organizations but the fact of the matter is that bossism is a reality. The origins of industrial engineering concepts such as supervision, management, centralization and span of control as well as the power of authorities to dispense rewards and privileges could have also created a helpful climate in organizations for bossism to entrench itself. Excessive bossism has led to rebellious pushbacks from the working class in yesteryears, bringing forth a host of industrial relations issues. Bossism, over the recent years, has moved from being a visible blue collar issue to becoming a latent white collar concern too.

In the modern day corporate context, bossism has several connotations. Leaders who demand implicit loyalty, expect blind execution and brook no discussion from their teammates (or, even from their peers) are a personification of bossism. Bossism is reflected in a failure of leader to appreciate work-life balance and the determination of a leader in achieving success at any cost. Subtle shades of bossism include being narcissistic in style, playing favourites, and promoting a ‘yes’ culture. In oriental cultures which deify authority, bossism and its implicit acceptance come naturally. While bossism thrives in servile teams, the ultimate satisfaction for a bossy leader is getting a candid team on to its knees and making it servile. Bossism is not necessarily synonymous with aggression. Aggression is not necessarily harshness or selfishness, and can be displayed by teams in camaraderie as much as by leaders driving obedient teams to hard tasks. Per contra, soft-speaking leaders with facilitative charades could be quite bossy in persisting till their teams wilt without a whimper in the leaders’ apparent kindness!

Perils of bossism

Bossism has many perils; it sniffs out free speech in organizations and denies the benefit to organizations of the benefits of multiple viewpoints. To be competitive and successful, organizations need to master and execute on the best of the several pathways. In a way, bossism is worse than authoritative or task style of leadership because bossism has no intellectual point of view, per se. Bossism is particularly hard on the millennials generation which is brought up in a rather free information society but is cramped into bossy organizational cultures for want of choice. Leadership development in organizations takes a big hit with a bossy culture. Bossism has an infectious facet of seeping into the broader organization, with subordinates sulking under bossy leaders also turning bossy themselves.  

Organizations exist to deliver value to society through competitive superiority. Competitive advantage comes with superior decision making. There are three essential steps in decision making in organizations. First is conceptualization, second is analysis, and third is solution development. All the three phases are dependent on a free and fertile mind, and an open and free expression. As bossism curtails these free processes, team members also, over time, find it convenient to acquiesce, and shift the blame to their leaders. One wonders if the great leaders of the past and present did not have the DNA of speaking up for positive things and against negative things whether national transformations would have occurred. It follows, therefore, that professionals should have the ability to retain their independence of thinking and have the ability to speak up.

Speaking up

Speaking up in bossy organizations, or for that matter in any organization, does not happen naturally and easily. Speaking up is not just not just about language skills to construct sentences or having personal guts to deliver difficult statements. This blog post proposes that speaking up to the boss is not a matter of just diction; it requires a model of DICTION! Diction is defined as the choice and use of words and phrases in speech or writing. It also reflects the style of enunciation in speaking. Diction, no doubt, enables communication, and the right diction adds value to the communication. However, for individuals to express themselves constructively and effectively, a model of DICTION is required. DICTION refers to Discipline, Intellect, Courage, Tolerance, Insight and Novelty as the six component synergistic combination of skills and attributes that is required for not only for constructive expression but for cultural transformation. DICTION as a model is relevant for leaders as well as the led, across all levels of an organization.


Discipline is the fundamental requirement of constructive expression. In regimented organizations which curb expressions, the discipline of speaking with responsibility makes it difficult for bosses to curtail expression. On the other hand, irresponsible and undisciplined speech will only provide handle to regimenting bosses to stifle any speech.

Intellect is what distinguishes the knowledgeable from the flippant. Intellect is the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively, and building a body of knowledge. Intellect is the shield that protects the speaker against unreasonable bossy onslaughts. Logic and reasoning have historically been the factors that challenge the dictators and stimulate the subjects. The organizational context is no different.  

Courage is being fearless. Courage in an organizational context does not mean daredevilry; rather it means a fearlessness to speak one’s mind based on one’s courage of convictions. Many times, speech is replaced by silence for fear of annoying others or facing retribution in terms of holdbacks in career. On the other hand, only courageous people can translate their intellect into actionable ideas that would make sceptical bosses take note.


As one prepares to confront, in a constructive manner, their intolerant bosses and peers, one may only expect severe and stubborn opposition which may be open or discrete. It is easy to lose one’s cool in such situations. Tolerance of such opposition and trying to conquering it through discipline and intellect helps the speaking up process. 


In organizations, there is only so much that is open while tends to be a lot that is unsaid. Those who are in the forefront of the ‘speak up’ change must possess insights of what works and does not work for the business. It is this capability for insights, when expressed responsibly and intellectually, that make people take note.


All popular products and services make their mark with their novelty. The novelty of speech makes even the sceptics and diehards take notice. Novelty is the signature tone of a tradition-defying speech. A quest for novelty results in a creative culture and vaccinates organizations against regimentation.

DICTION as a model

DICTION is an integrated model for responsible, intellectual, insightful and novel speech that is delivered with courage as well as tolerance. It is relevant for bosses as well as team members. It has to be practised as an integrated formula. It is not that always only the bosses need to be convinced; peers and team members also need to get convinced. DICTION, as a model, helps change the culture of an organization. One of the important points to deliver in any organization is to replace legacy systems and processes such as ‘command and control’ centralized administrative models with genuinely facilitative decentralized collaborative models.

DICTION as a model is a leadership responsibility. Leaders, themselves, must practise DICTION as they deal with their boards and investors. Internally, leaders must move from being monitors and controllers to mentors and coaches. It would emerge, therefore, that the first and decisive speak-up initiative must start in the domains of organizational design, organizational behaviour, and leadership development. The human resources culture verily defines the overall organizational culture. Freedom to express is not just an individual need; it vests in the organization the power and energy to grow.  DICTION provides the predilection for an organization to excel over itself, and the competition.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 05, 2016

No comments: