How To Speak Up At Work Without Burning Bridges — A Framework To Deal With Difficult Managers, Set Healthy Boundaries And Ask For What You Want

November 29, 2022 by Silviu Cojocaru

Read time: 15 minutes

In this guide, you’ll learn how to build the skill of asking for what you want without burning bridges.

When you’re afraid to speak up, you damage your confidence, self-esteem, mental health, and overall life satisfaction.

Most advice out there either vilify the managers or suggest quitting your job immediately. 

Neither is a long-term solution.

When you learn to speak up and navigate challenging relationships at work you: 

  • Learn to say no
  • Stop pleasing people
  • Can easily set healthy boundaries
  • Improve your self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Create a safe psychological environment in the workplace

After coaching hundreds of people and spending close to 1000 hours solving these challenges, in this guide I want to give you my 3-step formula.

So you can do your best work, learn, earn, contribute and enjoy your time at work.

Let’s dive into it.

Step #1: Manage Yourself - Clear Your Perception, And Learn To See The Reality Objectively.

When your manager does one of the following: 

  • doesn’t give you credit
  • criticises you publicly
  • isolates you
  • tries to intimidate you
  • blames you
  • keeps you in the dark
  • tries to silence you
  • doesn’t support you
  • controls every aspect of your job
  • displays any type of micro-aggression behaviour
  • or behaves in a way you consider toxic

    … understand why you get triggered.

The best tool I’ve come across to increase your awareness in these situations is The Levels Of Truth developed by Dr. William Schutz.

If you find it hard to speak up, use this tool to become aware of your level 5 of what's actually going on (truth) and then share your truth at level 5 or 4 with the other person.

Let me give you a few examples:

Level 0: Withhold — say nothing (the other person is unaware of anything that’s wrong).

Don’t speak up to avoid hurting the other person’s feelings / avoid being reprimanded.

Staying at level 0 creates mental and physical health problems because you suppress what you think and feel.

Level 1: Blame — speak up but only comment on their personality (the other person becomes aware of how you perceive her/his personality)

Instead of withholding, I can tell the other person what I think:

  • “You are <<insert negative personality trait>>> (e.g. a jerk, psychopath, controlling idiot).

Although this is more useful than Level 0, this approach gets us in trouble and it’s not really accurate.

Level 2: Feel — speak up but only comment on how you feel towards that person (the other person becomes aware of your emotions). 

Instead of blaming I also share the emotions that arise in me when they behave in a specific way.

  • “And I feel <<<insert feeling>>> (e.g. angry, ignored, frustrated, isolated)”.

This can deepen my manager’s understanding of the situation and of myself.

Level 3: Justify — speak up but only comment on their behaviour (the other person becomes aware of​ his/her behaviour towards you).

Instead of sharing my feelings, this time I back up what I say with a specific example of a behaviour — thinking that this may add credibility to my argument: 

  • “Because you <> (e.g. take credit for the world that I do and try to actively isolate me).”

The only time this is efficient is when the other person isn’t aware of the behaviour they displayed towards you.

The only time this is efficient is when the other person isn’t aware of the behaviour they displayed towards you.

Level 4: Perceive — speak up but only share the perception you have about why they do that (the other person becomes aware of your perception).

Each of us has a different perception of the same event. I go one step further in speaking my own truth when I disclose the story I created about the event:

  • “I think you think that <<<insert story>>> (e.g.I’m incompetent because you think that I’m a push-over)”.

Becoming aware of this story which has been influencing your behaviour in this relationship and sharing it with the other person gives you an opportunity to clarify and align both your perceptions.

Level 5: Disclose — share the fear you have with the other person (the other person becomes aware of your fear)

It’s usually this fear that inspires the stories I create in this relationship.

  • “About myself I fear that… <<<insert fear>>> (e.g. I am incapable, unworthy, unlikeable).”

Apart from having some information about yourself you weren’t previously aware of, this level gives you an opportunity to use some tools to remove that fear because…

This fear → may have clouded your perception of yourself (thus impacting your self-concept and self-esteem) → which may have impacted how you see and interpret other's behaviour → which may have impacted the relationship that you have with your manager and other people.
If I fear that I’m incapable or not good enough, deep down my perception of myself is that I am incapable (so my self-esteem is low). 

Once I remove that fear, my self-esteem improves, I stop projecting my fear onto others and I don’t get triggered regardless of what other people say or do.

Here’s an example: Your manager is overly controlling.

Level 0: You can say nothing…it’s not professional, who knows what happens if I do…

Level 1: Or you can blame: “John, you are a control freak…”

Level 2: Or you can share your feelings: “And towards you, I feel anger and disappointment…”

Level 3: Or you can justify: “Because every time you ask me to do something you end up changing everything I do until my work is completely ruined and then you criticise me in front of the entire team. Nothing I do is good enough for you.”

Level 4: Or you share your perception: “I think you think that I’m: not good enough, useless, a pushover and incapable…”

Level 5: Or you can disclose your fear: “And my fear, deep down is that I may be incapable…”

… and now that I think about it I created this story in the past. So it’s not that I am incapable to do this job, but this fear has been present in the past.

Removing either the fear or the perception that my manager thinks of me that way will help me improve my self-esteem, my performance and my relationship with my manager.

“Looking back I started feeling <<<insert feeling - e.g. not good enough>> in school: nothing was good enough for my teacher/parent so I picked up the message that I’m not good enough. Now every time someone behaves in a way that triggers that fear, I react, get angry, and my mental health is impacted".

I don’t suffer because of what people do or say, but because my manager’s behaviour or words proved that my fear (e.g. that I’m incapable, unworthy or unlikeable) is actually true. I suffer because I never share enough truth.

Rule of thumb:
  • If I’m only aware and share my truth on Levels 0 to 3, I may create conflicts
  • If I become aware of and share my truth on Levels 4 and 5, I reduce negative feelings towards the other person and become more resourceful
  • The less aware I am → the more distorted version of the reality I see →the lower my self-esteem → the more stories I create.

Now that you understood what triggered you, you have two options:

  1. Remove the fear through a deeper set of tools (not covered in this guide)

2. Clear out your perception (see below)


To clear out your perception:

1) Describe factually what happened: __________

(e.g. the manager called me into a meeting and said a few words/ did X behaviour)

2) I chose to interpret that behaviour/those words as: _______

(e.g. I may be fired soon; I’m not good enough; he thinks he’s better than me; he doesn’t care about me; he’s trying to isolate me or belittle me; she thinks I shouldn't have this job; she can do whatever she wants and I won’t speak up or leave)

3) Emotions aside, is this story accurate or did I create this story in the past because deep down I do have a fear about myself that I ___?

(e.g. I’m not good enough; I’m lazy; I don’t actually care; I never put the right amount of effort)

4) Clear out your manager’s perspective:

(e.g. “Hey Mark, I wasn’t sure whether or not to bring this up but I wanted to check where we are after that meeting (where you were criticised)…. My intention is to have a good relationship so that I can make a big impact on this team… do you have 5 minutes to chat?... Awesome… when you gave me that feedback in front of everyone the other day … I guess… I wanted to understand what was your perception of what happened. What was going on at your end?"

Let them explain.

5) Share your perception

Avoid commenting on their personality, behaviour, or how you felt - focus on what story you created.
(e.g. “Now, here’s what was going on at my end and the perception I had…<<<insert your story and perception you had>>>")

– for example: I think you think that I don’t care about x outcome.

"When I joined the team I wanted to make sure I’m following the process. After 3 months, I saw a few ways to improve the process, so I adjusted it with the intention of giving 100% to this team.

I didn’t want to follow a process that was broken.

I was hoping that this behaviour is encouraged, so when I heard you mention that feedback in front of everyone in my head I created the story that…well, you think that I’m incapable to do something simple, a pushover because I can’t follow a simple process and shouldn’t even be doing this job...

I know that’s a story in my head. And I guess I just wanted to clarify that with you.”

There are no toxic managers.

They have perceived toxic behaviour or language because they may try to cover up their insecurities. By being open yourself, you create psychological safety which may invite your manager or other team members to open up.

That’s what leaders do.

It takes courage to do this but I see it as the only way to lead effectively – regardless of your title.

“The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.” 
- Brene Brown

Apart from creating psychological safety, clearing out your perceptions helps increase your self-esteem because you clear out the wrong story you created about yourself (e.g. my manager thinks I’m not good enough or a pushover).

At times they may tell you that your perception is true – bingo!

Firstly, understand that that’s their perception.

It’s not an absolute truth.

Secondly, now you’re dealing with more reality and have a few options:

  • you can ask for feedback to improve
  • you can change their perspective
  • or you can move out of the team or company

In any case, you need to develop the skill of asking for the behaviour that you want from your manager – by learning to manage relationships:

Step #2: Manage Your Relationships - Ask For What You Want Without Burning Bridges

In this section, I will use the example of speaking up in front of a toxic manager – because this seems to be the hardest situation my clients bump into

When you speak up, you do it so that the other person changes their behaviour.

Most behaviours (including the toxic ones) fall under one of 3 dimensions:

  • Inclusion: Am I in or am I out?
  • Control: Am I on top or am I on the bottom?
  • Openness: Am I open or closed (connected to others or distant)?

Inclusion: Am I in or am I out?

When you don’t have a seat at the table, when you are not treated equally or when you are ignored (behaviour you see from others) you’re likely to feel isolated, insignificant, unseen – like you don’t belong (that’s the emotion you choose to feel as a result of behaviour).

The opposite can also be true: you can be too included in every single conversation or meeting to the point where it becomes too much — and feel overworked, taken advantage of, etc.

Control: Am I on top or am I on the bottom?

When your manager is too controlling or there’s too much structure, too much bureaucracy or too many processes and your perception is that you can’t have autonomy over your work —you’re likely to feel incapable, controlled, undermined, untrusted, like an impostor, etc.

The opposite can also be true: you can be given too much control without proper preparation or training or without having the right structure in the organisation — and have the same feelings.

Openness: Am I open or closed (connected to others or distant)?

When your manager doesn’t share a lot or isn’t open enough in their communications with you, then the relationship can feel superficial or distant and you may feel rejected — as if your manager doesn’t like you.

The opposite can also be true: when someone shares too much of their feelings with you all the time and it gets overly personal (e.g. complaining or speaking about what they had at dinner last night).

Virtually every situation that creates a toxic environment falls under one of these 3 dimensions

To understand more about these 3 dimensions, check out FIRO theory by William Schutz

To efficiently speak up and manage your relationships:

1. Get clear on what behaviour you want from your manager

If your manager is toxic, be clear on what needs to happen for you to enjoy the working relationship and perform optimally:

  • How much inclusion do you want and in what areas?
  • How much control do you want and in what areas?
  • How much openness do you want and in what areas?

Self-concept drives feelings.

Feelings drive behavior.

Behaviour drives results.

By asking for the preferred level of inclusion, control and openness you make it easier to feel good about yourself, which impacts how you show up and the results you have at work.

2. Ask for the behaviour you want from your manager, without creating additional stories about what you think they may think if you speak up

"Hey NAME, my intention is to have an amazing relationship with you and deliver 100% for this team. When you do X behaviour, my perception is Y. Is that your perception too? Instead of X behaviour can you do Z behaviour in the future?"

  • "Instead of criticising me in front of others, give me this feedback in private."
  • "Instead of taking credit for my work, give me credit in front of the senior team on the next call.

You may be inclined to avoid asking for what you want (withhold), because you may have a story about the story your manager has about you.

That’s just your perception.

Don’t create a story about the story your manager may have.

Ask, regardless of the stories you create.

Do not try to predict whether or not they will agree. Do not come up with additional stories

“The great leaders are not the strongest, they are the ones who are honest about their weaknesses. Great leaders don’t see themselves as great; they see themselves as human.”
– Simon Sinek

This is a skill. Regardless of:

  • the work you do
  • the people you’re surrounded by
  • the company you work in …

…learn to remove these BS stories. Ask for the behaviour you want, by first sharing your intention – which should always be positive.

When you remove the BS and speak up (having good intentions), you spend less time:

  • being annoyed, stressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, etc
  • managing tensions created by wrong perceptions

And you spend more time on: 

  • being productive
  • enjoying your work 
  • having fun at work

This is what I mean by being real  = becoming aware of what you want and of the perceptions you create unconsciously and asking for what you want despite them. 

But sometimes, you don’t get what you want so you need to have a plan:

Step #3: Manage Your Career: Have A Plan In Case Nothing Changes

Once you are able to clear out your own bias and perceptions, and are continuously asking for the behaviour that you want but don’t get it, you need to make a change. 

But first, you need a clear career direction and a plan.

Here’s our unique planning methodology:

1. Your Personal Mission Statement (coming from your essence):

How do you want to relate to others, the world or yourself?

2. Your Work Purpose:

How do you want to serve others through your work?

3. The stages through which you will start and continue delivering your contribution

These could be getting a new job, starting your own business or taking on additional education.
Think big picture.

When you have a long-term vision and direction for your career, you start using employers instead of letting them use you.

And since you’ve aligned it with the person you intend on becoming and the contribution you want to make, you will be internally pulled to implement it and fulfilled when you do so. 

“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” – Proverbs 29:18

Too Long; Didn’t Read (TL;DR)

  1. Manage yourself: clear your perception, and learn to see reality objectively. 
  2. Manage relationships: ask for what you want – inclusion, control or openness. 
  3. Manage your career: create a strategic, purpose-driven career plan. 

That's all I've got for you today.

Cheers, Silviu 

P.S.: You can use this framework in every relationship: with your partner, colleagues, kids, friends, and family.

Do you know anyone who would benefit from knowing this?

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