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Speak Up! ... 'You should fire him' ... What Next?

In our workshops I will discuss with participants how, despite planning out what you are going to say beforehand, often when the 'action' starts during a 'difficult' workplace conversation, the other party doesn't react as expected.

By using live actors in our worships we give participants the opportunity to think on their feet and develop positive reaction strategies.

This is also a theme my co-author Ken Cameron talk about in our recently published book 'I Need To F***ing Talk To You - The Art Of Navigating Difficult Workplace Conversations'

What follows is an extract from our book where we consider this specific point....

'“You should fire him,” said a gruff voice at the back of the room.

“Really?” Ken asked. “Why don't you come up here and show us how it’s done.”

We were delivering one of our workshops to a room of 30 engineers. They represented a cross-section of middle management business leaders in the twenty-first century that were educated, urban, open-minded, worldly, focused and experienced. They were comfortable identifying their strengths and had initiative to improve their weaknesses.

We hired a popular improv actor named Andrew Phung to play the employee. Andrew is a recognizable actor playing the character “Kimchee” on the popular television series Kim’s Convenience. He has won two Canadian Screen Actor’s awards and is famous across the country. However, on this occasion, Andrew was playing a geologist and each of the engineers was taking a turn as his manager. As each

participant came forward and tried to calm him down, Andrew’s character was becoming inflexible.

“Seriously,” the gruff voice of an experienced engineer we’ll call Witek piped up again, “if my employee was that insubordinate, I’d fire them.” Witek explained that hierarchy

is important in an engineering workplace. “One has to make everyone motivated, yes, sure, but sometimes the law has to be laid down.” It was hard to argue against his logic, so Ken asked him to try it out in real time.'

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.

Back to the book ...

'Our workshops use a technique called Forum Theatre that has been around since the 1950s. Forum Theatre, sometimes called Theatre of the Oppressed, is the brainchild of pioneering Brazilian theatre director, writer and politician Augusto Boal.

Boal trained as a chemical engineer before chasing his dream of working in the theatre. After graduation, he wrote and directed politically infused agitprop plays and toured around rural Brazil. In these villages, Boal observed a new generation of educators who rejected traditional teaching methods. Instead, this new breed taught their adult pupils how to read and write by focusing on everyday words they could use when they travelled to market. The stickiness of making work that was active and relevant, fascinated Augusto Boal. Over time he realized that his plays were nowhere near as effective at creating significant social and political change.

One day, while presenting a play at a community centre, Augusto Boal snapped. He'd been to this particular location many times with the same play. Every time he came back, the housing situation was worse and the residents more and more disenfranchised. Boal stood up and stopped the actress playing the mother mid-sentence. He asked for input from the audience. He demanded to know how the character should react to the oppressive situation. He pointed at the mother.

“What should she do?” Silence. Crickets.

Finally, a disgusted voice shouted from the back of the auditorium. “Speak up!”

It was the cleaning lady. She had seen this same play 23 perhaps a dozen times over the past two or three years. Like Boal, she could put up with the play no longer. She threw down her broom and stormed out.

Boal chased after her. “Wait!” he shouted. “What do you mean?”

“The wife should speak up,” the cleaning lady repeated. “So, she can be heard and others know exactly what is needed.”

“Show us,” Boal urged.

The cleaning lady came onstage and took over the role of the wife. She tore a strip off the landlord and rallied the other characters. When the cleaning lady ran out of ideas, she demanded the audience give her some help and when she was done, Boal encouraged someone else to pick up where she left off. Other audience members leapt onto the stage one after another, emboldened by this cleaning lady who first

decided the character should speak up.

The spectator had become the “spect-actor”, and Forum Theatre was born.'

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

'Fast-forward fifty years to our training centre, when Ken asked Witek to “show us how it’s done.” Witek groaned at being asked to participate, but he rose and strode to the front of the room. He sat down opposite Andrew and stared him straight in the eye. That’s when everything changed.

WITEK: Andrew. I need to fxxxing talk to you. Do you have a family?

ANDREW: Uh. Yes.

WITEK: Children?

ANDREW: A little boy.

WITEK: That’s more important than all this. At the end of the day, we all just

want to go home to our families. So, Andrew, it’s a simple job I’m asking you to do.

ANDREW: I know! It's so simple a monkey could do it! Is that what you think?

That I’m a monkey?

WITEK: No. Everyone here respects you.

ANDREW: That’s how you show respect in this place? By putting me in a closet at the end of the hall?

WITEK: It’s not a closet.

ANDREW: It was a broom closet before it got converted into an office! That’s why it has no windows.

WITEK: At the end of the day, we all want to go home to our family.

ANDREW: And when I get home, do you know what I tell them? I say, “Hey, your Daddy is just like Harry Potter. He spends his day locked in a closet.” And meanwhile, Beverley gets to finish organizing the seismic shoot on MY project with MY team. And now you’re telling me I can't go back to my old team?

WITEK: Maybe I can help with some of your


Ken called a time out. Witek acknowledged he made a fundamental mistake. He formed a logical argument while standing on the sidelines, however once in the hot seat and faced with Andrew’s strong emotion and counterargument, he couldn’t nimbly change tactics. By the end of the dialogue, he was volunteering to do Andrew’s work for him.

The military have a saying: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Witek’s plan didn't consider that strong emotions aren't defused with logic. Someone in Andrew’s position is in the heat of the moment, triggered by a deeply held emotional need. This state keeps them from seeing another side of the issue, no matter how rational. To simulate a real-life situation, we instructed Andrew to remain angry until the participant defused it with empathy. His anger was to resurface regularly until the participants unearthed the underlying issue. For the purposes of moving the scene forward and giving Witek an easy win, Andrew handed him a giant clue at the end of the scene.

Did you spot it? Look at the last paragraph. Andrew complains of isolation. He's working in a small windowless office while the rest of the team get to do something much more exciting. Witek completely missed the clue, because he had already decided on his logical argument. He hadn't been trained to listen and respond.'

If you enjoyed the extract, why not check out my new book, co-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

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!


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