How to be more assertive at work

I am definitely not someone you’d ever call a shrinking violet. Those who know me would say I’m not someone afraid to speak their mind and conformation isn’t something I struggle with. My mother refers it as ‘sass syndrome’ (and not in the Beyoncé sense). I call it being assertive. I digress.

Despite all the lean-in chatter and “bossy” talk that’s doing the rounds at the moment in relation to women’s role in the workplace, being assertive has often got me into trouble. The reality seems to be that while talking up and expressing your views works in theory, the reality is in fact, often very different.

It makes the whole power play and office dynamic a difficult one. What do you do when your boss just won’t promote you despite you putting three years of hard graft in your current role, all while doing taking on the responsibilities expected from the position above you? Or what about with that colleague who, for some unbeknownst reason just can’t spell your name right in every single email or refuses to give you anything other than monosyllabic responses. Stay quiet and you risk going home every evening depressed and counting down the days until Friday. Speak up, and you run the risk of being dubbed ‘difficult’.

There’s never going to be a perfect way to handle those situations but when I got chatting with Jo Thurman, director at Personal Career Management, she pointed out that there are actually a lot more we can do to that doesn’t result in either doing nothing at all or getting fired. Our biggest takeaways? 1) Always have the solution in mind and 2) be an adult. Not too difficult, right? Here are Jo’s top tips:

How to be more assertive at work

We live in a busy and demanding world, often working long hours and workplace pressures can be high. Within organisations there is a huge melting pot of attitudes, behaviours, capabilities, interests and frankly mental health, so it is only realistic to accept that this will give rise to conflicts.   So how do you manage those sudden flare-ups and the persistent offenders well and assertively without jeopardising your position in the workplace?

HOLD ONTO WHAT OUTCOME YOU WANT: What is it you want to change? Do you want a better relationship with an individual? A more harmonious office environment?   Better recognition of your value and contribution?   Holding onto that and the change you want to effect will mean you focus more on how to achieve that than just venting and getting something off your chest, which might temporarily make you feel better but may change nothing. If handled poorly because just you were particularly angry at the time, it may have a detrimental effect on your position in the long run. Knowing you want things to be better, what steps do you need to take and what steps do others need to take for that to happen? And is that realistic? This reflection and pre planning may not be able to guarantee success but can stop you getting caught up in the emotion and if things don’t change you could move on knowing you have given it your best shot.

How to be more assertive at workPICK YOUR BATTLES AND KEEP SOME PERSPECTIVE: Are they actually being fair and could you possibly be being over sensitive? Perhaps it’s a difficult time for you personally and those around you at work are feeling the effects of that. Perhaps your boss is going through a particularly demanding time in and/or outside of work. Be mindful of changes in behaviour such as someone reacting more extremely than normal. You might decide to give them some leeway or if you are truly concerned, proactively approach them privately and ask if they are okay.   While they may not wish to confide in you about personal issues it could be beneficial for them to know that someone is at least thinking of them as well as letting them know their behaviour hasn’t gone unnoticed. Bringing the impact of someone’s behaviour to their attention can be very beneficial if handled well as people are often not very self-aware and what is one person’s trigger may be very different to another’s. Be sure to use constructive language and talk about what ‘better’ would look like for them too.

BE WARY OF YOUR CHOICE OF LANGUAGE AND STAY CALM: In the heat of the moment things can get a bit fraught so try to use non emotive language for example “I am feeling very angry about the way I feel side-lined in team meetings” rather than “You made me very angry when you side-lined me in that meeting”. This is less likely to elicit an aggressively defensive response and could lead to a well-reasoned discussion rather than an escalation of an already difficult position. If things are escalating and publically, step away saying calmly and firmly that you feel that it is appropriate to pick this up either at another time or by taking it into an office where you can talk privately. You will come across as calm, assertive and in control of yourself. If you schedule a meeting later, be clear about what you want to get from it. Let them know what you wish to discuss and be well prepared with a list of all of the points you want to make. Keep your list to bullet points so you can refer to it easily.   This is particularly useful if you are worried that you might get teary.

BE MINDFUL WHEN RESPONDING IN WRITING AS IT CREATES A PERMANENT TRAIL: A good trick I have used many times myself is to write the email that flowed naturally first but most importantly address it to yourself only.   Once you’ve finished writing but before sending it, move onto another task and maybe an hour or so later review what you have written. Typically you will find the tone is overly angry, your points may not be made as succinctly or as professionally as they could be. So now temper it, tone it down and keep it factual. Then actually send it to yourself but don’t read it for an hour or so. When you open it in your inbox, try to hear in your head how the intended recipient might read it and then maybe refine it again. The email you actually send will likely very clearly and professionally get your opinion across in a way you would be comfortable having on record.