Ask the Coach: Assertiveness at Work

Here’s one of my latest “Ask a Coach” columns published in CA Source – the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants  (CICA) online newsletter. It’s about a theme that I encounter a lot……the issue of assertiveness at work.  Perhaps this will resonate with you or someone you know. In any case, if you have a question of your own….bring it on (see “Coaches Corner” on this site).

Q. I just had my annual review and had hopes of being promoted. Unfortunately I was bypassed — yet again. My boss said I have a lot of potential but need to work on some leadership abilities. He said my functional skills were great but I should focus on becoming more assertive if I wanted to move into a leadership role. I’ve never been a particularly aggressive person and can’t envision changing my whole personality. But I don’t want to stand still in my career either. Any advice?

A. I’m sorry about your disappointment in not being promoted. The good news, however, is that assertiveness can actually be developed — with some practice, self awareness and a dose of courage. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. Well, sometimes that’s true in life too. Those that assert themselves have a better chance of getting more of what they want at work and in life. The key, however, is to “squeak” appropriately. Assertiveness is not about being aggressive — nor does it require you to change your personality. Rather, it’s more about being authentic, self-expressed and standing up for yourself when it’s called for.

Defining assertiveness

Assertiveness is a core competency within the spectrum of emotional intelligence (EQ).  According to one definition,* assertiveness can be described as: the ability to express feelings, beliefs and thoughts and defend one’s rights in a non-destructive manner. It’s comprised of three elements: 1) the ability to accept and express feelings; 2) the ability to express beliefs and thoughts openly even when it is emotionally difficult to do so (I call those courageous conversations!); 3) the ability to stand up for personal rights without being aggressive or abusive.

To better understand how your own level of assertiveness might be factoring into your career experience, here are some questions to reflect on:

* Can you identify specific instances in your work where you felt held back because you haven’t asserted yourself? What was the cost of not asserting yourself in those situations?

* Generally, when you have an opinion and/or feelings that differ from others, do you tend to shy away from voicing these opinions or do you take a stand and articulate what is important?

* How do you feel about speaking up on issues that might involve some conflict?  Does that give you anxiety? Do you worry that others may think less of you?

* Are you able to set and enforce boundaries for yourself in terms of how you want to be treated and respected?

* When you need or want something that is important to you, do you proactively and directly make requests for it?

* Do you find yourself frequently saying yes — when you’d rather say no?

* How do you validate your own feelings and views? Do you acknowledge them or tend to dismiss them and instead defer to other people’s views?

Developing new habits of assertiveness involves courage, self awareness and various communication skills. For some people, these skills come naturally; others have to work at it. Here are some steps you can take to develop your own assertiveness.

1. Tune into your inner game by owning and acknowledging your feelings, ideas, beliefs One of the key elements of assertiveness is having the ability to acknowledge and accept your own feelings and beliefs. Without validating your own perspectives with yourself — how could you confidently express them to others? Start paying attention to those moments when you have an opportunity to assert yourself — perhaps you have an opinion, idea or challenge that either differs from others or isn’t yet on the radar. Take a few minutes to reflect on why this matters; what it’s about; what’s at stake if you don’t express it. The idea is to check in with yourself first to clarify and own your beliefs so that you can more confidently express them to others.

2. Identify any limiting beliefs that might be preventing you from being self-expressed
If in those moments of opportunity you find yourself hesitating, take a moment to explore what’s really holding you back. Often it’s our internal voices of self-doubt and limiting beliefs that keep us stuck.  Perhaps you have a belief that if you speak up something negative will happen. Do you have an inner critic that says:  “Don’t rock the boat!” or “Who are you to speak up?” or “You don’t have the credibility.” We all have our inner critics — the key is to acknowledge and manage them.If the voice of the inner critic is holding you back, try on a different perspective.  Instead, listen more closely to your own empowering voice of reason and wisdom. Remember, you just explored that in step #1.

3. Before speaking up, think about how you want to show up in the conversation.  Remember, being assertive might involve voicing your opinion — but in a way that doesn’t violate others.  This is where execution counts.

Here are a few tips:

* Choose your words wisely: Assertive communication involves being direct and open — but not brash. Choose your words carefully before you communicate.

* Tone is as important as words: Of course, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. Pay attention to your tone which includes language, voice and body language if communicating face to face.

* Speak directly and with clarity: Don’t beat around the bush. Say what you need to say but do so sensitively and diplomatically. It’s important to speak with clarity. Being vague, hinting, or just implying — can be counterproductive.  It can also sometimes appear manipulative.

* Communicate empathetically: Even if your views differ from the other person(s), show understanding and compassion for their viewpoint and/or situation, e.g. “I know you worked hard on this and put a lot of thought into it and I appreciate that. But I have another perspective that I feel strongly about that I’d like to share.”

* Practise, Practise, Practise…Developing habits of assertiveness takes practice and ongoing reflection. Situation by situation, moment by moment — each will give you an opportunity to practise, learn, reflect and adapt accordingly.Developing assertiveness not only calls upon courage — it builds courage!  Stretching yourself to be a little more assertive will increase your self confidence over time.  

* Enlist support:
There are a lot of ways to enlist support to help you develop yourself in this area.  Hire a coach who is skilled to work with you; take a course or enrol in groups such as Toastmasters; actively get involved in pursuits that will stretch and challenge you to step out of your comfort zone and/or provide you with leadership opportunities (e.g., perhaps within a volunteer endeavour).It’s an ongoing journey, but it’s worth the effort. Remember, appropriately assertive people get more of what they want in work and life; it helps them to feel more authentic and self-expressed.

*Assertiveness as defined by the BarON EQi system and Connective Intelligence.

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5 Responses to “Ask the Coach: Assertiveness at Work”

  1. Tom Volkar Says:

    Eileen, I like what you said about communicating empathetically. What a wise perspective to view a conversation from. If we just paused before speaking in an attempt to understand our colleagues we could head off many disputes before things got sticky.

    Then expressing that understanding the way you did in your example further diffuses conflict. I wish you well in your quest to spread empathetic communication.

  2. Eileen Chadnick Says:

    Hey thanks…and I think it’s a skill that does us well with all our relationships….in and outside of our work-lives. Even those that are ‘fleeting’ (i.e. a transactional one-time business relationship as in phone etiquette, etc.).

    Thanks Tom for checking in….your contribution both here and on your own blog is always very valuable and enlightening.

    Cheers ,
    Eileen

  3. Chris Edgar Says:

    This is great advice, and I’ll add that another way of developing assertiveness that’s been useful for me and people I’ve worked with is to get in touch with your body. When you have a moment to sit alone in silence, see if you can feel your body from the inside, slowly scanning your awareness over each part of yourself. This connects you with your Being — the part of you that existed before you had any social identity or obligations, and the part that has no need to apologize for what it wants or believes. Best, Chris

  4. Jacqueline Ryl Says:

    Wonderful. I do have a great career coach (you) and I am in Toastmasters, and I still find that the area of motivation and emotional intelligence. It really is caring baby steps that encourage others to step out of their comfort zone, and to grow. It is a new game that leaders need to acknowledge, and start off right by creating a safe and supportive environment for everyone to come out of their shell and blossom, or out of their cocoon and fly. If we don’t create this new game it will be the same old game of ‘have’ vs. ‘have nots’, which is not a fun game.

    I must say that the hardest person to work with (having personal experience) is the passive agressive; the person who doesn’t know that the change they want to see exists first within themselves, and who is being too antagonistic for their own good. It is hard to connect with them, let alone lead them. Alas, one can only set a good example and hope that in time they hope for a better path, at least a more peaceful and harmoneous path.

    Thanks for a super article!!

  5. Eileen Chadnick Says:

    These are all great points, Chris and Jacqueline! Thanks so much for being in this conversation!

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