Asking for what we need and advocating for what we know or believe in can be challenging for many of us, especially if we are new in the office, just now embarking on our career journey, or working in a culture very different from our own. Sometimes being assertive is confused with being aggressive, especially in situations when two of opposing temperaments or culture backgrounds are interacting.
What does it mean to be assertive and why is it important for your career?
We have the right to our own points of view and needs and to express them in a non-threatening way. The challenge is to express them confidently without imposing on someone else and their rights. Being assertive is the opposite of being submissive, and allowing someone else to deny or ignore your point of view.
Having the confidence and skill to assertively contribute to team discussions and advocate for your career goals and needs is imperative for a meaningful and successful career. Some situations are more difficult than others though, so let’s explore a few.
Most clients I have worked with mention their supervisor, boss or manager as the first obstacle to being assertive. I am not saying that all managers are authoritarian. Staff who feel it is difficult to advocate for their ideas or express their needs do, however, often mention that their supervisor does not create an open culture for communication. Sometimes the reason is cultural, for example, the manager’s values are rooted in a traditional authoritarian culture.
A second challenge is the culture of the team. For example, when team members are competing amongst each other or are openly critical or even hostile towards some members. Joining such a team can be very intimidating, especially if you are not very outspoken to begin with.
The third challenge to being assertive is culture. Your own cultural values and behaviors and those of your colleagues, peers, supervisors, leaders, clients and partners may be very different. Culture influences how we communicate, our management style, leadership and hierarchy, gender roles, the role of age and seniority, and finally, how we manage conflict and give negative feedback.
Working as a young woman from an individualistic, direct and egalitarian culture in a traditional hierarchical culture where a woman’s role is associated with being a daughter, wife and mother can be very challenging as you are asserting yourself among your colleagues, supervisors and clients. Just continuing to communicate and behave as you are used to will not work.
Similarly, if you were raised in a collectivist culture with a very indirect and non-confrontational communication style and move to work in a country where the dominant culture is the opposite, you will need to adjust and style switch to be successful.
A question I often receive from more direct clients working in a culture that is the opposite is How can I be assertive and propose solutions without being perceived as rude? In this situation observing how others, or the local staff behave is a start. Enlist a local informant or mentor who can guide you and advise you is another good idea.
What can you do to express yourself more assertively?
First, you need to start by asking yourself what is holding you back. Is it your own beliefs about yourself and your self-esteem? What are your thoughts and feelings about yourself, your own knowledge and worth? Do you tend to minimize your own expertise? Tell yourself you do not know enough to contribute?
A second question to ask yourself is, how easy or difficult is it for you to say no? Do you feel guilty saying no? Are you plagued by self-doubt and guilt after standing up for yourself and asserting your needs? Those of us who feel guilty while saying no to a heavier workload, more responsibilities and new clients run a higher risk of burning out. What is the fear that is holding us back? The fear we will miss out of something, perhaps a promotion, a great opportunity to show what we are capable of? Perhaps a concern for being unlikable, or for being perceived as not being team player and for hurting our reputation.
Feeling – Thought – Behavior
There are several different methods originating in Cognitive Behavioral Theory (CBT) you can use to create a better self-esteem and positive sense of self. CBT explains that our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are connected. How you think about yourself influences how you feel about yourself and how you behave in a certain situation. Having negative thoughts about your own value, your knowledge, and ability to perform will likely hold you back in that team meeting or performance assessment with your supervisor.
You can slowly change this negative feedback loop by first noticing when it is happening. Then, identify the specific negative thoughts and the connected feelings. Next try to replace them with a counterargument, with a positive thought about your abilities or perhaps remind yourself of a success in the past. Changing ingrained negative thinking patterns takes time as they can be deeply rooted so this is a process. Using positive affirmations is a well-known technique to enhance self-esteem and assertiveness. You may wish to explore it further.
Another method is visualization. Visualize yourself as the assertive person you wish to be, or as the culturally skilled communicator you strive to be. Then, ask yourself; How is that person different? What does she or he think, feel and how do they behave? What do you need to change to be that person?
You can also use visualization before a difficult meeting to boost your confidence. In this case, you visualize a successful meeting where you behave assertively and confidently. This is a technique often used to calm nerves before a job interview.