Jess Baker is a business psychologist and leadership coach

During a recent AB webinar, I shared some insights into how to have courageous conversations at work. We explored how organisations can foster trust and innovation, as well as considering how we can express ourselves in a positive way and increase productivity by adopting solutions-focused principles.

Be the role model; dare to show up as your authentic self, not just as your job title

Here are some of the key themes.

How do you build confidence in yourself and your team when working in a highly structured traditional organisation?
Hierarchical, top-down structures can prevent courageous conversations among employees. As a leader, you have the opportunity to create your own team culture, but it might not be easy. You need to protect your team from top-down commands and begin to make your own rules. What values do you want to adopt? How will you do things differently? How will behave? How will your team work together?

Be the role model; dare to show up as your authentic self, not just as your job title. Introduce ways of working that allow you and your team to get to know each other better. This fosters trust, which encourages collaboration, which builds confidence in yourselves and others. Your self-confidence might grow as you begin to be truer to yourself.

Alternatively, if you are the only person in your team who feels restrained and under-confident by the organisational culture, it’s probably time to seek an employer who values empowered leaders.

How do I stay in a rational and respectful 'adult' mode instead of sliding into a reactive 'child' mode?
Eric Berne’s transactional analysis model demonstrates how easy it is to shift between 'parent' state (controlling or nurturing) and 'child' state (reactive or creative), and that it’s easier to have courageous conversations when we’re in 'adult' mode.

You cannot change other people but you can choose how you react to them


It is difficult for the other person to remain in parent (or child) mode when you are being the reasonable adult. Ideally, they’ll realise that you are not playing their game and will adapt to your style (but this won’t always happen!). Here are some behavioural tweaks for you to try to help you stay in adult mode:

  • Remain calm
  • Speak clearly at a steady pace and pitch
  • Sit or stand straight
  • Do not tilt or nod your head
  • Make authentic (not too strong) eye contact
  • Don’t aggressively fold your arms or point a finger
  • Don’t passively shrink your into your own body; find a neutral but firm pose
  • When speaking, seek clarity by saying ‘I’d like to know more about that idea’, or ask ‘What is it about my idea you disagree with?’
  • Assert what you want to happen next, eg ‘It would be useful if you could…’ or ‘Can we both agree on what happens next?’

How do I deal with a passive/aggressive boss?
Fortify your own resilience so that you have the inner strength to deal with this person every day. Remember, you cannot change other people but you can choose how you react to them.

Common examples of passive/aggressive managers include being agreeable to your face then undermining you behind your back, such as complaining about you to your colleagues. They might agree for you to run a project but then withhold resources. They might ignore your suggestions, close down your ideas, or dismiss you non-verbally by tapping a pen, rolling their eyes or looking at their phone while you are speaking. They may use sarcasm and deflection to protect themselves if are they feeling insecure in their role.

Analyse your manager’s communication style. Make notes on what, how and when they interact with others. Keep a journal for one week and look for patterns in your own interactions with them; ask colleagues you can trust if they notice this, too. Reflect on why you think they are passive/aggressive: is it their style with everyone? Are they consciously aware of it? Is it only towards you?

If you suffer with self-doubt, use a coach or mentor to help build your inner-confidence before attempting to be assertive with your manager.

How can I be assertive when my boss keeps shutting down my ideas?
It’s frustrating and demoralising when we are not listened to. Consider influencing your manager enough that they actually want to listen to what you have to say. To do this effectively, you have to anticipate what they like to hear and adapt your style accordingly. For example, if they like to hear about facts and stats and certainty, but you make a suggestion like ‘I really feel we ought to try…’ what they’ve actually heard is ‘I’m not sure what I’m saying.’

Use team meetings as a laboratory and become the observer. Who does the manager respond well to and why? Perhaps they have more in common with each other? What’s different between their communication style and yours? What do you think motivates and energises your manager? Then try adapting your communication style to match your manager’s.

Do not ever try to change who you are; just playfully tweak the way you communicate in ways that are authentic to you

Alternatively, a more transparent, courageous and adult approach is to tell your manager how demotivating it is to have your ideas ignored, when all you are seeking to do is improve the bottom line.

Please be aware of these three caveats
Firstly, please do not ever try to change who you are; just playfully tweak the way you communicate in ways that are authentic to you. Secondly, practise any new behaviour tweaks in a safe situation with friends and people who love you; it’s usually a journey of trial and error. Finally, small behaviour tweaks can have a big impact, so start small and watch for others’ reactions.

More information

You can access the AB webinar on Courageous conversations here

Jess Baker will be talking about compassionate leadership at ACCA’s annual virtual conference, Accounting for the Future. Register to attend and learn about trends affecting the profession, while earning up to more than 15 CPD units