How Assertive Should You Be in the Workplace?

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For most of my life, I never heard of the importance of being assertive.  I played soccer growing up, took leadership roles in school, and worked for 2 years after college without hearing the word in everyday conversation.  Suddenly, as I have transitioned into a supervisory role at work, this idea of practicing assertiveness has been constantly governing my intentions and actions.  It’s no surprise that I’m struggling to understand what assertiveness looks like, when I’ve never clearly defined it in my past.  When I look back to find examples of strong assertive women, I tend to draw a blank.  Sadly, I have images of women who stood up for what they believed in, and were ridiculed or shamed.

Should you be more assertive?

In an attempt to understand why practicing assertiveness is important, I first had to understand the difference between being aggressive and assertive.

as·ser·tive: having or showing a confident and forceful personality.

synonyms: confident, self-confident, bold, decisive, assured, self-assured, self-possessed, forthright,firm, emphatic; More

ag·gres·sive: pursuing one’s aims and interests forcefully, sometimes unduly so.

synonyms: hostile, belligerent, bellicose, antagonistic, truculent; More

The definitions in and of themselves don’t make me feel more comfortable with these terms.  I mean, I’ll say with certainty that I’ve never had a forceful personality.  That aspect of the definition seems rather insecure.

Likewise, being aggressive means pursuing one’s aims and interests forcefully, which sounds similar.  The synonyms for these definitions couldn’t be any different.  The last thing I want is to be hostile, belligerent, or defiant.  I want to be synonymous with assertiveness, which is self-confident, bold, decisive, forthright, empathetic.

WAIT.  STOP.  Empathetic?  I can do empathy…but what does empathy have to do with being assertive?

The Washington Post published an article in which it defined Empathic Assertiveness (yes, it’s apparently a thing):

Empathic assertiveness means that we respect others and can see their perspective, but at the same time we’re firm in our boundaries and are confident in how we implement them.

Respectfully listening to others but being firm in our own boundaries.  Sure, that actually makes a lot of sense, but it’s much easier to say it out loud than to practice it at work.

I’m lucky that I have a partner who helps me identify areas of improvement.  I’ve talked with my husband over and over again about my attempts to be more assertive.  I tell him about how someone blatantly disrespected me but I didn’t take it too seriously – after all, they surely didn’t mean it.  I tell him about how I was interrupted during a meeting but instead of speaking up, I hid back into my shell and waited for the time to pass. I tell him about my struggle to enforce expectations, when in reality I haven’t even defined my expectations yet.

He watches me defend my point of view and calls me out when I’m not being direct. He has acknowledged, way before I ever did, that I over-explain myself. When I don’t want to do something, I’ve been conditioned to make a logical sophisticated explanation as to WHY I can’t do it.  I’m learning that I don’t need to explain myself when I don’t want to do something.  I can just say no – and sometimes saying “no” is enough.

BWhat about the threat of others taking your assertiveness as rudeness?  Well, there’s all sorts of articles out there that talk about how women work through assertive behavior at the workplace.  The chances of women being penalized for showing assertive behavior is much higher than men.  Women have to strike a delicate balance to not be too bold, for chances of someone taking it the wrong way.  After all, women should be nice and listen, right?

That’s the message I was taught growing up.  I’d boldly explain my point in class only to be interrupted or laughed at while presenting.  I’d speak up for what I thought was right in front of my family, but never received affirmation that this characteristic should be admired.  More often than not, I saw women being shamed and ridiculed for speaking up.

So when I work with men three times my age, and my job is to give them feedback, it’s no wonder that I have to repeatedly build up the courage to constantly set and enforce boundaries.  It’s no wonder that when my direct report verbally responds to my professional feedback with “yeah, yeah, yeah” under his breath that I initially take it offensively.  But with enough rationalizing, I often convince myself that this response is acceptable.

His response reminds me of when you overhear a woman explain to her husband what needs to get done around the house, and he mumbles “yeah, yeah, yeah.”  It’s almost as if some men are so used to hearing this constant nagging that they have an elicit response any time a woman gives them feedback.  I don’t care what you do at home, but in the workplace, this kind of response is unacceptable and disrespectful.

But rather than always explaining why this impacts me in a “less than positive” way, I think I’ll practice my assertiveness and firmly ask for this behavior to change.

I’ve come a long way when it comes to being assertive, but I also have a very long way to go.  I still struggle with others’ perceptions of my behavior, and tend to fear being anything but nice and approachable.  I’m having to rewrite my past and see direct, bold, assertive behavior as a positive and necessary step in the right direction.  After all, I have big goals and aspirations, and I know I’ll need to be able to stand up for what I believe in and truly be heard.

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