by Monica A. Ross, LPC
I want to focus today’s post on assertiveness. We hear human resource professionals and hiring managers emphasize the importance of practicing workplace assertiveness. But what do we mean by that exactly and why is it important?
There is this sense as longtime employees and entrepreneurs and newly graduated individuals into the workforce that lack of assertiveness is something people will pick up on, but why is it crucial to performance? Assertiveness is about clear communication.
Think of the captain who in giving commands to the personnel below her is vague, or leaves it up to her subordinates to decide what action to take next or how to execute it. There would be chaos that could lead to loss of life. There are just some organizations and structures like bureaucracies where clear communication about what needs to get done creates greater efficiency and leads to improved productivity.
It is very important to be flexible and to be able to bend when needed, but there are also times where, for instance, if I didn’t make it clear to someone what my needs were and how they could best be met we would never find out whether or not we were on the same page.
This could come into play in so many different ways and so many facets of life, but this is especially important to a business well run. Let’s say that your boss hands you a project and says “I just need you to get started working on this.”
He gives you a rough idea of the task and then expects that you will take off with it. He may not even be sure himself what he’s looking for, but he gives you the indication that he’ll know it when he sees it.
If you are one who has difficulty speaking up or asking for better direction you might just say “Sure, I’ll get to working on it” and leave the room with questions and complaints about how your boss could be better at providing direction. But perhaps your boss is overwhelmed and doesn’t even have the time to think about how to get organized.
They’re looking for some self-efficacy and leadership on your part, some assertiveness, perhaps because they know their own inefficiencies. Perhaps they have seen countless others apply for and then either quit or get fired from your position at some point. Maybe your boss is unsure of how long you will stick around.
So what assertiveness might look like as your boss hands you the project with little direction is something like:
“When is the drop-down dead date that this needs to be finished by and in what format do you need it in?”
“Given the timeline for the overall project when should we have a check-in about this part in order to make sure that we’re on the right page?”
“How much of my day should be spent focusing on this versus these other projects I have going on?”
“Would it be okay if I gave you a rough sketch of what I think it is that you need by next week so that we can discuss and I can get further direction?”
This is a perfect example of leading from behind or from a subordinate position. The questions are highly detailed and specific and measurable. So assertiveness is less about putting one’s own ideas above another’s or bullying one’s way through things and being harsh or inflexible, as some might think when they hear the word.
It’s more about clearly delineating what needs to get done by asking questions and setting dates and timelines and offering up ideas for modification. It’s more or less about speaking up to facilitate information exchange.
It’s just as important for the captain in the example above to speak up as it is for the project coordinator or administrative assistant. The difference is that it is assumed that the captain will be giving direction.
But in some instances, one might find oneself in the position of having a boss who lacks the ability to lead effectively or communicate clearly or simply feels so overwhelmed they don't have the time.
Maybe she is good at what she does but has little experience providing direction to others and somehow finds herself in the position of having to do so. So someone needs to demonstrate assertiveness and even though it’s assumed that will be the person leading you, there are times when that person will not be able to do it 100% of the time.
There are other situations in the workplace that call for assertiveness.
For example, if your boss asks for something to be done in a time frame that is not feasible, assertiveness is the ability to say something like “I know you’d really like this done by then but given the other projects I’m working on I just don’t think I’ll be able to produce it in that time frame and with the level of quality you are looking for.”
In this example, you’re expressing an opinion using an “I” statement versus telling your boss that what she has asked for is unreasonable. Assertiveness is about the body language you use as well.
Are you standing up tall as you deliver your words with a steady pace and volume? Are you directly facing the person you’re talking to while making eye contact?
Or are you looking downward and trying your best to make yourself look small in the room by crossing your arms or legs? I have some clients tell me that when they try to confront someone in this kind of direct manner there is something about it that is too intimidating and they may find themselves in the midst of tears over it.
So, at a moment when they are wanting the very most to stand firm and tall, they feel diminished because they don’t see a way through the disagreement in a manner that will give them room to express their thoughts and opinions. They report to me as though the other party is someone who is so inflexible there is just no way to get through to them.
I’ve heard people refer to those tearful moments as tears of frustration. Getting through those tears of frustration starts with the belief that one can get through to the other person, and with the opinion that needs to get expressed regardless of how the other person will receive what one has to say.
This is important because everyone has just as much a right to express their opinion in a respectful way. So claim your worth.
By the same token, a certain measure of humbleness is important in life, but there is a difference between being humble and minimizing yourself or your efforts. Assertiveness calls for taking credit where credit is due and celebrating your successes.
It also calls for not qualifying one’s opinion with “This is just my opinion” which might suggest that you are calling into question the value of your opinion. Using filler words might also at times reduce the appearance of confidence—words such as “like,” “uh,” and “um.”
Assertiveness does not have to be aggressiveness, but it does mean knowing your worth, setting boundaries, and asking for what you need. This only facilitates clear communication and leads to greater efficiency and productivity.