Speaking Truth - Persuasively

Experienced managers are generally pretty good at 'managing upwards'.  But there is something uniquely difficult about communicating with Chief Executives, Cabinet Ministers and the like in a way that ensures that they listen to you. This web page offers advice from experienced civil servants and others on how you might be successful when doing so.    I have divided it into these areas:

  • Initial Impressions
  • Understanding What Is Important
  • Understanding the Problem
  • The Art of Persuasion
  • Offering and Receiving Challenge
  • The Need for Thinking Time
  • Transactional Analysis
  • Enlist Support From A Source That Will Be Trusted
  • Are You Prepared To Be Blamed, Boss?
  • Governance
  • Project Budgets and Timetables

Initial Impressions

It is vital that your decision maker is willing to listen to you, so it is very unwise to begin your relationship with any form of disagreement, let alone confrontation.  But this is easier said than done, if important decisions need to be made very quickly, or if your new boss wants to make an immediate mark. 

It is often said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose - and there are no doubt private sector analogies to this behaviour.  It is therefore often the case that a new appointee to a senior position will need to be very politely told that their plans will not work - and indeed the better ones will not be surprised that this is the case.  If surprise is likely then the conversation should if possible be postponed for a few days at least, but this is not always possible.

An interesting example of this dilemma could be found in the early days of the Blair administration when Head of the Civil Service, Sir Robin Butler, tried very hard to dissuade the new Prime Minister from bringing into his office – and giving executive authority to – two political appointees: Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell. It can be argued that this decision encouraged the development of ‘sofa government’ which did so much damage later in Mr Blair’s premiership. Be that as it may, Sir Robin’s opposition meant that he (and hence the wider civil service) got off to a bad start with the new administration. Peter Mandelson’s memoirs record that “[Robin Butler’s] huge experience in government, and his intelligence and insight should have been used better. But his initial clash with Tony meant there was an uneasiness, on both sides, in his relationship with Tony’s core political team.”

I confess that - at a much less exalted level - I too got this badly wrong when I respectfully but unnecessarily appeared other than subservient in an initial meeting with a Minister who was known to dislike civil servants. I should have known that it is best to do everything you can to first convince a Minister that you are their loyal and devoted servant.  You need to forge the kind of bond that will later allow to be seen as a critical friend - someone who knows when - and when not - to be brutally honest. Take your time (if you can) and wait for the Minister to accept that you know what you are talking about before you attempt to challenge his/her views.

The problem, of course, is that an initial failure to challenge can set the tone for a relationship in which challenge becomes near impossible.  Some critics, for instance, say that many modern senior civil servants have become more like courtiers than honest advisers, and much the same undoubtedly happens in parts of the private sector. And James Comey has written eloquently about how failure to challenge a powerful person can lead to advisers becoming trapped into submission:

Of course, to stay, you must be seen as on his team, so you make further compromises. You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitment to values.
And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.

Be aware,too, that (lack of) personal chemistry might also doom your relationship with a decision maker.  Ministers may (quite unfairly) react adversely to your age or educational background, or may feel patronised when you display your experience.  This was (to the latter’s surprise) another big element in Tony Blair’s initial dislike of Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, whom he found somewhat patrician.

Ministers and Chief Executives are also often displeased when they find that their officials are better networked than they are.  Try to hide it if you can.

Hopefully, however, there will eventually be a moment when you are needed - when you can crystallise that bond that should exist between a decision maker and trusted adviser. If you have first established their trust, have been respectful, and not undermined them, most powerful people will be grateful when you can help them overcome a problem, or find another better route to their policy objective.

(Ex-Secretary of State) James Purnell and (ex-Permanent Secretary) Leigh Lewis have together published a short and sensible note recommending how a newly-appointed Secretary of State and their Permanent Secretary should most sensibly spend their first 100 days together.

Understanding What Is Important

Policy advisers need to understand how their decision maker defines policy success. Is the decision maker entirely happy if the policy achieves its stated goals?  Or do they also want to achieve business, political or personal goals such as greater market share, votes or public/colleagues' acclamation  - which might lead to promotion. 

In thinking about this question, you must learn about, and assess the importance of, the decision maker's hinterland:- : their social circle, their home town, their political party and so on.  A decision maker will be very reluctant to take a decision that will be unwelcome in the society in which they move.   This applies particularly to politicians who must work within the limits set by their constituency party and party leadership.

Once you have thought hard about these questions, you can if necessary frame your advice in a way that will help the decision maker achieve their personal goals.

Understanding the Problem

It is important, too, that you should understand the nature of the challenge that you face. 

At the easy end of the spectrum, none of us like being told that we might be wrong, so tact is always called for. 

As noted above, you'll have to plan your approach more carefully if your decision maker might be constrained by established policies and/or corporate or public opinion.  Or they might have other priorities and insufficient (small 'p') political capital to do the right thing.  .  Follow this link for a more detailed discussion of decision makers' incentives. 

Your problem becomes more serious if your decision maker seems likely to succumb to the Prevention Paradox in which Ministers or executives prefer to take uncertain and dangerous risks rather than face certain (unjustified) criticism.  The implementation of the Brexit referendum was a recent excellent example of the syndrome;  Ministers were much more concerned to avoid being criticised for delay in implementing the referendum result than interested in getting to a safe and sensible future relationship with the EU 27. And Andrew Ross Sorkin, in Too Big to Fail noted that Lehman's Dick Fuld "had known for years that Lehman Brothers' day of reckoning would come ... But, like everyone else on Wall Street, he couldn't pass up the opportunities."  Frankie Boyle put his finger on it when he tweeted that "I've always hated the phrase "speak truth to power", which seems to rest on the delusion that power doesn't already know the truth , and would behave differently if it did".

Last, but far from least, you may be faced with an arrogant and authoritarian boss who wouldn't recognise the truth if they had a head on collision with it. 

Each of these four audiences are likely to need to be approached in different ways.  Read on for some ideas ....

The Art of Persuasion

It is well worth reading and remembering expert advice on effective persuasion - advice more often directed at sales teams, but very relevant nonetheless.  None of this advice is at all modern, of course. Aristotle argued an audience will more likely accept propositions put forward by a credible speaker. To appear credible, he said a speaker must display (i) practical intelligence, (ii) a virtuous character, and (iii) goodwill.

And almost all modern writers repeat Blaise Pascal's advice, written in the 1600s. In short, before disagreeing with someone, you should first point out the ways in which they are right before helping them discover a counter-point of their own accord and so persuading them to change their mind:

"When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. ... People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others."

Experienced policy advisers do this almost without thinking. They adopt their bosses' aims as their own, whilst gently - and a little later - suggesting that there might be better ways of reaching the desired objective. They become, in effect, a critical friend

(They sometimes come to be seen - very unfairly - as 'the only person I can trust to tell me the truth'.  Margaret Thatcher's Willie Whitelaw (Everyone needs a Willie'!) was a good example.

There is an obvious need to be extremely careful when seeking to suggest that your boss's views may be mistaken, or his/her performance less than optimal. Luckily, the English language provides numerous ways of softening a critical message:- 'I am afraid that ...'; I am not sure that ...'; 'I wonder'; I gather'; 'I imagine'; 'presumably'; possibly/probably'; and so on. The risk, of course, is that important advice and messages do not get understood by the recipient.

There is more detailed advice on  persuasive (and hence effective) communication elsewhere on this website.

Offering and Receiving Challenge

Preparation of the advice in this web page was catalysed by Sir John Chilcot's Iraq War Report which criticised senior civil servants and the military for not doing more to challenge Ministers in the months leading up to the war. Sir John later told the Liaison Committee that senior officials should “take their courage in both hands and insist on their right to be heard and to record what their advice is, even if that advice is not taken”. One very positive outcome from the report was an MoD document which included concise, sensible advice on offering and receiving challenge.  Further detail is here.

And maybe this is a good place to mention one successful challenge which may have changed the course of history:  Chief of Air Staff Cyril Newall and Head of Fighter Command Hugh Dowding together resisted Winston Churchill's demands for more fighter squadrons to be sent to France which enabled the RAF to retain essential UK air power during the 1940 Battle o0f Britain.

However ...  Dowding was notoriously humourless so his character probably grated on Churchill who sacked him only months later.

The Need for Thinking Time

We are all liable to react badly - and probably negatively - if presented with the need to take an urgent and unpopular decision.  So ...

It can make a lot of sense to raise an issue quite tentatively, for discussion next day or next week.  This gives time for the decision maker to get used to the idea of adopting an obviously correct - if unwelcome - way forward.  It thus becomes their idea - not yours.

Equally, you shouldn't delay before bringing a difficult issue to the attention of the appropriate decision maker.  Don't wait for more information and analysis and don't spend time, too early on, wondering how an unpopular decision might be presented.   You should instead give your decision maker plenty of warning that a potentially unpopular decision will be needed.  They can then:

  • get over the shock,
  • assimilate the immediately available facts
  • begin to understand the arguments,
  • start thinking abut how the decision might be presented,
  • consult their colleagues and other advisers, and
  • requisition further advice and information.

Your early warning will still make your unpopular, of course, but you would be much more unpopular if you were to wait until your decision maker had to make a potentially serious and personally damaging decision with little or no time to think about it.

Transactional Analysis

We all communicate with each other as superiors, as equals or as inferiors and we frequently adopt different approaches to the same person at different times. Problems invariably arise, in work as well as at home, when one party’s approach does not meet the expectations of the other.

The usual starting point in any analysis of expectations is that we all expect to be treated with respect, and with due recognition of our different skills, experiences and perspectives. Civil servants, for instance, should not talk down to Ministers (although some colleagues seem to forget this*) or to the public (ditto). And Ministers should not talk down to us - or to the public.

*I strongly suspect that this was a big factor in Ivan Rogers falling out with Prime Minister Theresa May during the early stages of the Brexit negotiations.

Sometimes, however, you may need to signal clear subservience. You may, for instance, need to defer to your boss if time is short, or if he or she clearly has much more experience or knowledge than you, or if he or she has already heard enough and wants you to accept their decision. The need for you to back off is usually signaled pretty clearly. If you are slow to notice the signals then problems will certainly follow.

Equally, excessive use of deference can also cause problems. Decision makers, voters and customers expect to deal, most of the time, with your organisation's experienced and professional staff. Lengthy displays of deference will cause them to write you off as inferior in ability as well as status.

So if your relationship with your boss seems fraught or distant, or if you suspect that they actively dislike you, consider carefully whether you are signalling superiority, equality or inferiority when they are expecting something else.

This analysis can also improve the effectiveness of your written advice.  I was always taught to make clear recommendations – “I recommend that you should …” – but I have noticed that recently interviewed Cabinet Secretaries say that they generally suggested that “The Prime Minister might …”:- a softer and probably more acceptable formulation at that level.

Further notes on this subject may be found on my Personal Relationships web page.

Enlist Support From A Source That Will Be Trusted

If your boss doubts your expertise, or your commitment to their cause, or is simply unpersuaded by factual evidence (cognitive dissonance can be very powerful), it can make a lot of sense to arrange for them to get independent advice from a trusted intermediary - and that means someone that they trust, not someone that you trust..   Such sources might include:

  • professionals - such as health professionals - active in the relevant policy area,
  • lawyers - and in particular external lawyers,
  • other professionals such as economists, investment bankers, PR and communications specialists,
  • business people and trade unionists,
  • think tanks, and
  • academics.

Facilitated citizens assemblies of various sorts can also be a good way of demonstrating the likely reactions of real people to policy proposals -  as long as they are run in a very professional way so as to eliminate deliberate or accidental nudging of participant reaction.

But take care to ensure that your boss makes a strong input into the choice of external advisor. He/she will have strong preferences as to the sort of advice that they value, and you must avoid any suspicion that you have primed the adviser to promote your policy advice.

Are You Prepared To Be Blamed, Boss?

This can be a high risk strategy but ... most decision makers can be made to pause if you remind them that they will get the blame if their decision might lead to obvious damage such as injury and death. 

The Grenfell Tower survivors forced the government to take action on combustible cladding on other high rise buildings by asking a Minister if he would take responsibility next morning "if something else happens tonight".

Less dramatically, it is vital that you get unambiguous sign off for possibly contentious decisions. Before they were Prime Minister, both Gordon Brown and Theresa May were said to be very reluctant to take personal responsibility.  Mr Brown would look at draft press notices, for instance, but not sign or initial them.  This character weakness  was a pretty clear advance indicator that they would be weak Prime Ministers.  Be that as it may, however, it was the duty of their staff to record their approval for things done in their name, especially if the Minister had been recommended to take another course.

Project Budgets and Timetables

It can sometimes be helpful to suggest to an enthusiastic boss that more haste generally equals less speed, even though they may feel that you are dragging your feet and/or seeing unnecessary obstacles. They may however recognise the thought that there is a natural rhythm to a good project – nice and slow and cautious at the beginning, so that rapid pre-planned progress can be made at the end. It is a trite but accurate observation that a new building will be finished soon after its foundations have been laid. Ministers will still need to make those big bold announcements, if only to forestall the announcement of a similar ambition by a rival.  But such announcements should explicitly allow you time to research and plan the project in some detail. 

It can also sometimes be worth quoting or paraphrasing the military doctrine that 'The first duty of a commander is reconnaissance.' The best laid schemes will certainly go badly awry unless preceded by decent research, consultation and planning.

Benchmarking can be a very useful tool.  Powerful people are more likely to listen to advice that "X achieved something similar within Y months after spending Z", and so recognise that it is unlikely that he or she could expect to do it in much less time and for much less money.

Click here for a more detailed discussion of appraisal optimism.


This should maybe have been the first item on this page.  Strong Boards - and in particular strong Chairs and Non-Execs - are the first line of defence against private sector Chief Executives and others who are tempted to stop listening to their staff.   They also offer vital safeguards against developments in corporate culture that might empower dangerously heroic managers.  The FRC has published some very useful Guidance on Board Effectiveness which - if followed - would eliminate many of the problems summarised in these web pages.  The guidance in particular recommends three-yearly Board Effectiveness Reviews. The best companies also carry out regular Culture Audits.  The worst companies will of course treat these as no more than annoying box-ticking exercises and will take full advantage of the fact that the guidance is intended "to stimulate boards’ thinking on how they can carry out their role and encourage them to focus on continually improving their effectiveness. Ultimately, it is for individual boards to decide on the governance arrangements most appropriate to their company’s circumstances" - whilst evaluations are allowed to be 'bespoke'.

There is unfortunately no comparable guidance for the public sector.  There are plenty of codes, of course, but none of them cover similar ground to the FRC guidance mentioned above.  In practice, therefore, individual Minsters and Councillors will behave badly unless they feel that their misbehaviour will be seriously punished either by the electorate or by the Prime Minister or Council leader. The likelihood of this happening depends very much on the latter's political strength. which is often insufficient to bring a badly behave appointee to heel.

The Ministerial Code says that "Ministers have a duty to give fair consideration and due weight to informed and impartial advice from civil servants, as well as to other considerations and advice in reaching policy decisions" - but this formulation hardly allows room for criticism if a Minster asserts that they have given due weight to advice and then decided to ignore it.

And departmental policy advisers over cannot expect much if any support from departmental boards.  One non-exec member told me that his role amounted to being little more than a Christmas tree decoration.  The key problem, of course, is that Cabinet Ministers believe themselves to be primarily accountable to the Prime Minister, the electorate and Parliament (though not always in that order).  They certainly never believe themselves to be truly accountable to their Board, nor is any Board able to intervene if Ministers appear not to be taking proper advice.


It is unrealistic to expect Ministers always to welcome advice. Even the best of them will have days when they simply want to be obeyed. But it is good if they can subsequently make amends. I quite like this story told by Robert Harvey about the Duke of Wellington:

'To his chief medical officer ...who had the temerity to differ with him on an issue he snapped: "I shall be glad to know who is to command the army, you or I?" However, he asked the good doctor to sit next to him that evening by way of atonement.'

There is some good training material available for those lucky enough to work with those many politicians who are willing to listen to advice, even if they can’t always agree with it or accept it. Recent examples include Christopher Jary’s Working with Ministers and How to be a Minister written jointly by ex-Minister John Hutton and ex-Permanent Secretary Leigh Lewis. But civil service trainers feel that they cannot publish anything that suggests that Minsters are less than perfect. There is therefore little or no published advice for those working with a politician with a more difficult personality.


Martin Stanley


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