A Viking, a Construction Worker and a Graduate walk into a bar ....

Both in our corporate workshops and our recently published book 'I Need To F***ing Talk To You - The Art Of Navigating Difficult Workplace Conversations', my co-author Ken Cameron and I discuss the benefit to a leader of separating the person from the behaviour when it comes to managing our employees.

What follows is an extract from our book where we consider a useful method to do this ....

If we agree that it’s not effective to think of our employees as “fxxxing unmanageable, flawed individuals” for whom there is little hope, then we need a new language; one free of Fbombs and other gratuitous swear words. We find it useful to think of your employee as wearing a hat that epitomizes the behaviour they’re exhibiting.

Behaviours are constant but hats are not. You can remove a hat and exchange it for another. With the proper encouragement, your employee can trade in their poor

behaviour for another behaviour that’s more productive. Just like a hat, behaviours can become overly comfortable if they are worn too long. And like a hat, a behaviour can get shabby if not exchanged regularly.

We’ve chosen four hats to illustrate four categories of behaviour. Let’s go through these four hats one at a time.


The individual wearing a Viking helmet, is usually defending a certain pattern or status quo that is precious to them in some way. Like a Viking who suddenly finds themselves transported into the modern world, this individual is clinging

to old gods.

In other words, they are attached to an old way of life that is outdated; new approaches confuse them and cause them to lash out. This may take the form of aggressive behaviour, or it could also be a passive aggressive response.

For example:

• “I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work.”

• “This isn’t my fault.”

• “It’s not in my job description.”

Their response is not just no, it’s no negative for extra emphasis.


This person’s response is not quite as negative as The Viking Helmet, so we call this a no positive. Of course, such a person rarely says “no” outright, so you have to listen for the “no” buried within their comments.

For example:

• “I am on target, so what’s the fuss?”

• “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

• “I’ve always been good at this.”

You can see how this individual is rationalizing their “no”. In fact, it’s important to realize that they most likely believe what they’re saying. They really do believe they are on target and it isn’t broken! In short, they feel their present situation

is good enough as is. This person has no realization that there’s a need for change.

I hope you're finding this blog useful. As you continue your leadership journey, don't forget that here at Bluegem Learning we are always here to assist you.


Let’s say you’ve persuaded one of your team members to remove their Sun Hat or set aside their Viking Helmet. Now they've adopted another piece of headgear, a construction worker’s yellow Hard Hat. We label this person as a yes negative.

For example:

• “How can I achieve my targets?”

• “I’ve got an idea, but I need permission to try.”

• “What if we did it this way?”

The hard-hatted individual is willing to change but does not know how or what to do to move forward. This can be a bit frustrating at times because they require monitoring. They need your support because, left to their own devices, they

may revert to Viking or Sun Hat behaviour. But this is a good employee to have because they can be coached. There is an opportunity here to be creative with them and to brainstorm a solution together.


We call this person a yes positive. In fact, “Yes And” is a common phrase you’ll hear from this individual: “Yes, that’s a great idea AND I can’t wait to get started.”

For example:

• “I’m going to do this. And I’ll do it on this schedule. I’ll report back when it’s done.”

• “100% we can make this happen, the issue is how can we achieve even MORE?”

• “Nothing can hold me back!”

This is the employee we all want to have! Not unlike a wind-up toy, you can wind them up, let them go and focus on your own work. However, be careful and don’t get too

confident in their abilities. As we’ll see, they still require some management.

Out of necessity our categories are broad. We acknowledge that these four hats are likely to come in an infinite number of colours, shapes and sizes. After all, there’s no one size fits all when it comes to hats, just as with people. However, categorization

is useful. Metaphors provide us with a lens by which to refocus our perceptions of the world. These tools are meant to give you a place to start a discussion.

If you enjoyed that extract regarding navigating those difficult workplace conversations, why not check out my new book, written with Ken Cameron.

You can now order copies of our book here.

"Sometimes conversations suck, but you need to have them, and this book lays out how. Russell and Ken have put together and road-tested simple, up-front, and thoughtful approaches to awkward and difficult workplace conversations."

Andrew Phung, CBC's Kim's Convenience

Check out our podcast here, new episodes bi-weekly ...

Well that's it for this week. I hope you enjoyed the blog and I'll be back next week with more, until then ... be a leader not just a boss!

#leadership #management #HR #difficultworkplaceconversations #organizationalculture #highperformance #teamwork