Step Up Your Work Game: Building Assertiveness
If you’re having trouble presenting your ideas to higher-ups, consider using these nine strategies to build your assertiveness skills.
Consider the contrasting cases of Susan and Yolanda.
Susan, a leader in a health care organization, feels frustrated. She prides herself on her commitment to her clients, yet struggles in her role and often second-guesses her decisions. She feels tentative about approaching senior administrators with ideas for improving the clinic’s functioning. In meetings, she holds back instead of sharing her insights in critical conversations about treatment protocols. Susan works long hours—far more than the role defines—but gets little recognition and support. She carries this stress home and worries about her job. Despite loving her profession, Susan is exhausted.
Yolanda’s situation is markedly different.
A human resource leader in a biotech company, Yolanda feels engaged, energized and productive. Colleagues often seek her professional opinions. Based on her knowledge of other biotech organizations, she has recommended improvements to her recruiting and compensation systems . Although voicing her opinion is sometimes challenging, she doesn’t hold back in meetings. Yolanda received formal recognition from her supervisor for her passion for improving her department and is up for a promotion.
These scenarios highlight the role and importance of assertiveness skills and underscore their benefits to both job performance and self-confidence. Assertiveness and the ability to advocate for one’s ideas is a vital skill for any manager who seeks more influence with their clients, organizations and professions. Cultivation and use of this skill is something that I support my coaching and leadership development clients.
What is assertiveness?
Assertiveness includes several key components, leadership researchers suggest. One is expressing one’s feelings and thoughts openly despite being challenged by others. Another is standing up for oneself without abusing others. While speaking one’s truth to others takes a certain amount of courage and skill, doing so in the midst of disagreement or conflict calls forth a higher level of ability.
As a key leadership skill, assertive behavior draws on a number of related personality facets and capabilities. My experience reveals that three key elements enable assertiveness: self-regard, emotional self-awareness and expression, and empathy.
Self-regard is the ability to respect yourself, acknowledge your strengths and accept your weaknesses. One manager I worked with described how her lack of self-regard was linked to a mistaken belief that, “I’m young and haven’t been doing this as long as some other people, so I should just keep my opinions to myself.”
Emotional self-awareness and expression is cognizance of your inner emotional states and the ability to communicate these emotions in a productive way. Such emotional awareness is a critical first step to demonstrating assertive behavior. In essence, internal emotional reactions are what motivate you to take action. Leaders I coach often dramatically improve their assertiveness when they sensitize themselves to their inner emotional states—because this awareness prompts them to speak their truth.
Empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate how others feel, which is key to building strong, trusting relationships. Ideally, asserting yourself is not a one-way street. Rather, it happens in the context of a relationship. By using empathic skills, you deepen trust with the listener, improving the likelihood that he or she will listen to your attempt to assert an opinion.
These three building blocks enable people to assert themselves and their ideas. But what is it that has the opposite effect, squashing people’s assertiveness? To find out, I polled leadership development cohort of 30 emerging leaders, asking participants to identify internal or external factors that prevent or diminish their ability to assert themselves and their ideas. Among the most common:
- 45 percent indicated that contextual factors, such as a lack of support by their managers or a resistant organizational culture, blocked them from asserting their ideas.
- 37 percent indicated that personal factors, such as low self-confidence, fear of conflict, or people-pleasing tendencies played a big role in limiting their ability to assert themselves.
As these results show, our behavior is a byproduct of the interaction between our own abilities and our environment. And when that interaction causes people to feel muzzled, misery can follow. This internal struggle often leads people to get stuck. Ultimately, the decision to improve your assertiveness skills often boils down to a cost-benefit analysis: Do the benefits of asserting yourself exceed the costs of not advancing your ideas and feeling taken advantage of?
Moving Into Action
What are some actions you can take to boost your assertiveness?
1. Ask for feedback.
People we work with know us in ways that we may not be aware of. Consider asking trusted colleagues or your boss about your ability to assert your ideas. This kind of feedback can be tough to hear, but is often the first step in gaining awareness that leads to big improvements.
2. Internalize and reinforce your sources of power.
Amazingly, it’s during times of doubt and stress that many people forget their power and brilliance. Periodically reflecting on a list of your achievements—particularly when you are facing a conversation in which it is likely you will need to assert yourself—can be a very effective strategy.
3. Find and develop your professional passion and purpose.
Several leaders I interviewed note that their courage to assert ideas springs from a deep commitment to serving their customers or patients. Passion and purpose often galvanize us to speak up, despite our fear.
4. Read inspiring books.
One leader I interviewed mentioned Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” as a useful resource for women seeking to curb self-defeating behavior and assert themselves more. Sandberg describes her fascinating ascent to senior leadership roles in Google and Facebook and powerful lessons she learned on such topics as mentoring women and using positive thinking to achieve work/life balance. She also describes a phenomenon called “the impostor syndrome,” in which women in the workplace feel they have less to contribute than men. I also recommend reading great books on assertiveness (see end of article) and discussing the practical application of the ideas presented. Ten years ago, I read a number of books on Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall for a doctoral course on transformational leadership—I still draw on these books when I lack confidence to assert my ideas.
5. Find a mentor or role model.
Social psychologists have long argued that mentors and role models play a significant role in changing how we think and act. Accordingly, a developmental strategy I often suggest is identifying and interviewing people who model the very behavior we want to develop. Many times, the best mentor may be from a different field or may have a very different personality from ours.
6. Practice your skills.
Consider trying out your assertiveness skills with a trusted guide or colleague. Because a major part of assertiveness is embodied in our language, we need to find our unique voice in communicating this way. When I coach senior leaders, I often invite them to practice being assertive with me in critical conversations.
7. Clarify your authority and link your ideas to strategic priorities.
In many cases, professionals do not assert themselves because they are unsure of the scope and authority they possess in their professional role. This ambiguity can cause leaders-to-be to doubt their self-efficacy and authority to make decisions. Remedy this situation by clarifying your decision-making authority with your manager and ensuring that you are aligned on critical priorities.
8. Get comfortable with managing conflict.
Many leaders do not assert themselves because of discomfort with conflict and overuse of empathetic skills. Conflict competence is a skill that can be developed and practiced, as outlined by Eckerd College researchers Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan in a book I often recommend, “Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader.” Having a mentor who is more skilled at navigating conflict can pay big dividends in your development.
9 Build your professional knowledge and networks.
Several managers I spoke with shared how they bolstered their assertiveness through professional education and relationship-building. Often times, having a strong support network gives leaders the courage to take more risks in asserting their needs with others.
Although there are a fortunate few who are seemingly wired to assert themselves powerfully and confidently, most of us, like Susan, must invest time and energy in developing this skill. And it’s worth doing because the payoff can be significant.