How to Assert Yourself at Work

Published on: 24 Sep 2018
A woman sits confidently at a desk

For as long as I remember, I’ve wanted to be a journalist.

Even before I knew of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, The Devil Wears Prada’s Andy Sachs or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days’ Andie, I knew I was destined to chase deadlines. So, when I graduated during the recession of 2008 and was given my first full-time editorial opportunity, I knew how much of a privilege it was. I was elated to be fulfilling a 10-year dream.

Even though it was a very junior position for a very small magazine publisher, I knew it was an important stepping stone, and I wanted to give it my all. So, I took on everything.

You need your three-hour interview transcribed? I’m on it. Six pieces need to be written and published by Monday? Don’t ask anyone else, my weekend is yours. Slowly, I began to be seen as the one in the office you could count on doing what you didn’t want to do.

Why Being a “Yes” Person is Detrimental to Your Career

A few months into the job, the editor-in-chief of the company asked me into his office. My anxious brain was on fire — was I being promoted (ideally, to his job) or was I being fired?

He sat me down and said, “Ladan, you need to learn how to say ‘no.’ You can’t succeed personally and professionally otherwise.” I was shocked — I’d been working around the clock to be the “yes girl,” and instead of my work being rewarded, it was being reprimanded?

Mike had a great point, as those older and wiser than us tend to It was a point that has helped me more than any feedback in my career so far.

While you may think you’re being a go-getter — nose to the grindstone, doing good work and always with a can-do attitude — others may see your willingness to take everything on as pushover behavior. This leads people to pass off their work onto you, causing you to take blame or work harder than you have to. Being taken advantage of can make you feel stifled in the workplace and lead to career stagnation.

How to Be Assertive at Work

The key is to stand up for yourself and be assertive, which is easier said than done. But Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, a management research company, offers three quick ways to start developing this skill in your career.

1. Use “I” statements

Using “I” statements creates clarity in your workplace desires, and leaves less room for behavior that can be used to take advantage of you.

Take this statement, for example: “When I hear blonde jokes in the break room, I understand that the intent is humor, but it’s humor at someone else’s expense. Let’s change the topic.”

In this example, the speaker states the problem in a matter-of-fact way and makes a specific request. There is no name-calling, no blame — just a simple statement and a simple request.

2. Frame the topic by highlighting benefits for the employer

By phrasing your desires in way that signals you’re team player, or have everyone’s best interests in mind, you open yourself to more respect from colleagues or management. It shows you consider the bigger picture, and the potential impact on your workplace and its business objectives.

For example: “Currently, our team calls out questions across our workspace. This means everyone is hearing every question, which is distracting. I would like to brainstorm alternatives as a team that could help boost our group’s productivity.”

Again, the speaker states the problem matter-of-factly and makes a specific request. By suggesting a course of action and a possible business advantage, the speaker comes across as a problem-solver, not a whiner.

3. Make your reason clear

Being more specific about the reason for your requests or feedback reveals to others the full context of your needs. This clarity helps reduce subsequent questioning, which can lead to doubts about your capabilities or ability to communicate effectively in the workplace.

For example: “I need access to the file room in order to complete XYZ parts of this project. Can I borrow the key?”

Notice how this is a simple statement and specific request, not a complaint.

How to Apply Your Assertiveness

While it’s not an easy behavior change, with some simple steps and practice, you can get much more comfortable with the idea of speaking up for yourself. The key is prep and practice.

“When wanting to find ways to assert yourself at work, it’s important to start with prep work,” said Melissa Divaris Thompson, a licensed psychotherapist in New York City.

“First, get clear about what you want. It’s important to first know what you want and need and why. Getting clear about why this really matters will help you stick your ground later on, Thompson says. “Second, practice. Find a trusted friend and practice talking about what you need before you assert yourself at work. If a face-to-face is too scary for you to start, consider an email to lay it out. It’s important then to follow up in person. This way you won’t change your mind mid conversation and you can be clear and direct in your email.”

Thompson also recommends to just do it — no matter how you assert yourself, you may make someone irritated. People will choose to respond to you in any way they choose, even if you present your needs perfectly.

Just remember that no matter what level, you have a right to assert yourself at work in a respectful clear and grounded way.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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