Do You Want To Be More Assertive? Here’s How

David Shindler is a coach, facilitator, speaker, and blogger on jobs, careers and employability development. He is also the author of “Learning to Leap, a Guide to Being More Employable”.
Typically, my coaching clients want help with career direction or progression, to get a job, or to improve their current job performance. Usually, they present with self-doubt. Scratching the surface and their challenge is often about being assertive. This post looks at how to be assertive in five different job- and career-related scenarios. Also, we look at the common factors, so you can up your game and increase your chances of success.

First, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. Being assertive means standing up for what you want while taking into account with respect what the other party wants. You seek a win-win and that sometimes involves negotiating. Your intent is clear, and your approach is inclusive, irrespective of the outcome.

The job interview

Do you hold yourself back at the job interview because you don’t want to come across as bragging? That’s a common fear that may lead to being too passive. However, employers want people with a bit of drive. One way of being assertive and not appearing arrogant is to use the positive words that other people say about you. So, get a fab quote from a manager or leader, colleague or customer that highlights what you can do and the difference you make.

Get on the front foot about your value to an employer. See things from their perspective as well as your own. Fuel it with healthy self-esteem – knowing who you are, feeling good about yourself and being valued by others for the things you want to be valued for. If you don’t feel good about yourself, you are not going to convince an employer you will be good for them and land the job you want. What do you want to be valued for?

Also, show assertiveness through the questions you ask. Openly acknowledge and take into account what you want and what an employer wants. If you want the job, tell them! People often don’t say or forget at the interview and the employer is left wondering if they really want the job.

Being assertive means standing up for what you want while taking into account with respect what the other party wants.

The new job

Sometimes, you start a new job or internship and it’s not what you thought it would be like. Before you know it, your unhappiness increases and becomes more difficult to shift if you don’t nip things in the bud. Assert yourself early on in your induction to clear up misunderstandings, neglect or simple oversights by others. You don’t know when you start if this is teething trouble or something more deep-rooted and enduring. If your new job sucks, your intuition can help and only you know if this job and employer are right for you.

If you are a new intern, not everyone will understand or know why you are there. It can be tough establishing credibility and gaining acceptance. The temptation for some colleagues is to treat you as ‘just the intern’. Be assertive to set the tone or change perceptions. Here are some of the best ways to make sure that you get noticed for all the right reasons as the intern.

Another common issue is a lack of confidence from uncertainty and insecurity that may inhibit you from taking the initiative. The dangers are showing your dissatisfaction implicitly (passive-aggressive) or overtly without skill (aggressive). Instead, be assertive – where you state your needs clearly and calmly (and why) AND seek to satisfy the needs of the other person. Do the right thing and make something happen that wouldn’t occur without your initiative.

The performance conversation

Modern workplace conversations about performance are not about your day-to-day to-do list. It’s not the chat across the desk. Instead, for half an hour every 2 to 4 weeks, you are stepping back from the action to talk informally about how you are doing and feeling. Expect or encourage a coaching style from your manager to help set an agenda and create actions together.

Your balancing act is between being assertive and being tactful. Speak up when facing weasel words from a poor manager. How can you support your manager in a way that helps you both? You will need to manage your emotions before, during, and after the conversation. So, plan, rehearse (say the words out loud) and stay calm at the moment.

If your manager starts canceling one-to-ones, it’s a sign they or you are not a priority. And it will reduce your productivity, which is in no-one’s interests. Don’t accept interruptions either. Otherwise, it’s time for an assertive conversation. Here’s how not to shoot yourself in the foot.

Another common challenge is responding to tough feedback from your manager.

Use your emotional intelligence if feedback is badly done. Own your thoughts and feelings. When you talk to me in that way, it makes me feel…. If you disagree with the feedback, say so and back up your argument with specific evidence. Calmly say what you believe and want. Stay in tune with your personal values. Ask positively- framed, rational questions like How does your feedback help me to improve? How will you help me develop?, and How can I help you?

The senior manager

Holding your own when dealing with more senior managers can be tough depending on their personal style and behaviors. Yet, there are times when being assertive is the right thing to do. Again, success depends on having a win-win mindset.

For example, how do you say no to someone senior with confidence? Some people are fazed by seniority in hierarchical organizations. For others, they just want to please people. Too often, you can end up saying yes and the pattern keeps repeating itself. If you want to change things, analyze the context, prepare beforehand and use some of these helpful win-win strategies.

You may be a recent graduate. Many employers lament the lack of assertiveness of new graduates in managing up. By which they mean, lacking confidence, overly seeking permission, and holding back too much. What they want is for you to talk

to more senior managers in an adult-to-adult way, and not being afraid of voicing your ideas and concerns.

Also, without being assertive, some people find they are punished for success. The very strengths that other people value in you can sometimes be your undoing. For example, you always go the extra mile (because you’re so reliable), help others out (when it’s their responsibility), and meet deadlines (even if they are unrealistic and affect your wellbeing).

Things won’t change if you don’t recognize and raise the issues, reach a common understanding and do something about it. Focus on these things to take back control if you are regularly punished for success:

  • Be clear about the real purpose of your job
  • Identify your strengths and when you overplay them
  • Find the causes of the demands made on you
  • Negotiate some give and take

The new manager

Experience is a great teacher, yet, there will be times as a new manager when the boundaries are unclear. So, be assertive to get clarity. Agree with your manager on the responsibilities and accountabilities of your managerial role. Discuss the limits of your authority – what you can and can’t do. 

Be assertive by bringing out your personality in the way you manage. Set the tone at the outset for what you expect from your team and what they can expect from you. Also, avoid making assumptions. Part of your role is to engage with direct reports in an ongoing dialogue that tests assumptions. Don’t be passive – check out how your team are doing and feeling, and what they need from you.

Finally, be assertive with… yourself!

So, what’s common among these scenarios? If you focus on your why, what, and how, your assertiveness will grow in no time!

  1. Your why. Remind yourself why changing things is important to you. Hold up the mirror to show how the opposite of being assertive undermines your success. What is the opportunity cost to your career and wellbeing of being too passive or aggressive?
  2. Your mindset: Think win-win.
  3. Your behaviors: Choose the behavior that leads to the result you want.
  4. Your skills: Be yourself with skill. Communicate with emotional intelligence because language, your tone of voice, and the questions you ask all make a difference.
  5. Your curiosity: Get feedback, observe others, reflect on when you are assertive and when you’re not, and practice to improve.
  6. Your commitment: Invest in continuous personal and professional development to adapt regularly in a changing world.

Get on the front foot and lead for yourself in a world of uncertainty.

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