Authority and assertive communication

“I am finally going to do it,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

She replied, “For years, our company has had a no jeans policy.  And, for years, Kris Smith has been getting away with wearing jeans in the office while the rest of us have to dress up in skirts or slacks.  So, I am finally going to talk to HR about it.  It’s unfair.  I’ll tell them this week that Kris has been wearing jeans, and I’ll ask them to enforce the policy fairly.”

I empathized a little bit with her, and then asked her my next question: “Do you know the company’s reason for implementing the no jeans policy? Do you agree with the reasoning there?”

“Not at all.  From what I can see, it seems to be a useless policy.  I know others in our office who feel the same way.  It’s arbitrary.  We don’t interface with clients.  All our office visitors are outdoor workers – they certainly don’t care whether we are dressed up or in denim.”

I asked her, “Which sentence rings truer to you: 1) You want Kris to not wear jeans.  Or 2) You would like to wear jeans.”

She paused. “The latter.”

I brainstormed, “In your meeting with HR, instead of exposing Kris, why not shift gears and present a little friendly, non-threatening business case for how allowing jeans might help build morale and positively impact the bottom line of the company?”

She got quiet as she considered my suggestion.  While I could see she didn’t like my alternative route and searched for a reason to disagree with me (probably because it’d require new behavior of her, with an unknown outcome, resulting in an uncomfortable feeling), to her credit, she admitted that my new idea made the most sense for everyone – for Kris, the company, and herself.

To comply with authority is so deeply ingrained in many of us that we are at risk of unwittingly throwing our peers, coworkers, friends, and fellow humans under the bus.  The fear of questioning authority (or more accurately, the fear of our own anger spilling out in a conversation during which we are questioning the status quo to an authority who we perceive holds our survival in their hands) is so great, it can feel debilitating.

Here is my tried & true solution to tackling these sorts of situations.

Step 1:  Feel your anger.  Find its genesis.  See it was there long before you ever had a boss at work.  Most of my clients, after introspection, find its genesis in faulty parenting in which there is a top-down hierarchy where rules are established and enforced by the parents and followed by the children in order to avoid punishment.

Step 2: With the new awareness from Step 1, train your mind to realize that your boss wants to hear your good ideas.  He or she may not implement all of them – or any of them! – but that’s okay.  At least consider that your boss wants to hear about any potentially good ideas that might be floating around in your mind, and with that new insight alone, you’ve already won in the battle to earn back your self-expression and sense of equality (which is what you’re really looking for, by the way).  Your boss wants to hear what you’ve got to say.  Especially when you communicate your thoughts assertively.

Step 3:  Practice assertiveness.  For many people, crucial conversations come out angry, or they don’t come out at all because we fear our own anger.  Assertive communication is neither aggressive, nor passive.  Assertiveness is the ability to communicate directly, honestly and kindly – all at once.  This is the solution you’ve been looking for.  It is possible.  It is liberating.  And in my experience, and in my clients’ experiences, it is trustworthy – it works.

Step 4: Recognize deeply that even the worst-case scenario – getting fired – which is highly unlikely, will not actually kill you.  Would you go without food, shelter or love in the event you lose this job?  If the answer is “No,” then what is there to fear, really?!

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