How to set expectations, make your voice heard and other tips to help assert yourself in the workplace.
I have never come across a workplace without its share of ‘strong personalities’. They are valuable. They challenge. They often have admirable drive and determination. However, sometimes they can be difficult to deal with, particularly if you are less assertive and a lot of assertive energy is suddenly directed towards you.
Power is everywhere...because it comes from everywhere. – Michel Foucault
Relations of power are present in all working relationships, and a hierarchical structure often cements them. But what can you do if your boss, or any other individual continually asks you to do things that you do not feel are within your remit? In short, what can you do if you feel that you are constantly being walked all over?
Set expectations and enforce them consistently
Sometimes work pushes us out of our comfort zone, and that is fair enough. If it is within the remit of our jobs, we just have to get on and do it – ‘suck it up’. But if we are often being asked to pick up tasks that do not belong to us – perhaps to take the strain for a colleague with a lesser output – it can cause resentment and reduce our job satisfaction.
The last thing we want is to gain a label of ‘negative’ or ‘unwilling’. It is important to identify the things that you do not want to do that fall outside of your remit, set expectations that you will not pick these tasks up, and suggest a solution to the root of the problem. Perhaps the person responsible is struggling with time-management or needs more training. Be firm, but show you care and would like to help find a solution.
It helps to pre-empt unwelcome requests if you can – be positive and clear, and explain to your boss or other party, “I’d like to help in the best way possible. This is what you can expect from me, but I feel strongly that this task should be handled in (this) way”.
Make sure you are heard
This is tricky, particularly if you are not used to being assertive and do not like confrontation (that’s ok - many people don’t, me included!). Have some phrases in mind to use when you are asked to do something you feel is not yours to do, and be direct. Try not to make excuses and, again, be firm and factual:
“I agree that needs done. However, I am responsible for x and am not best placed to complete this task”. If you can do so without it appearing that you are simply throwing the task over the fence without consideration, suggest an alternative.
Often, people will continue to ask you to do things until they are told they can or should not – they may not even realise they are ‘walking all over you’ if they are natural delegators. ‘No’ is a scary thing to say, particularly if you are at the weaker end of a power relationship. However, getting used to saying no for a good reason is a powerful business tool – if you have other priorities, or do not agree with the request, a firm explanation should suffice. It can certainly take practice to deliver confidently, but if you have good reason for unleashing its power, the word "no" can be the key to re-balancing an unbalanced relationship in the world of work.
Before some important meetings or presentations in which I know will be challenged, I head to the nearest bathroom, look in the mirror and give myself a pep talk. I also own a book called ‘How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Live an Awesome Life’
So, I have first-hand experience of nurturing assertiveness and growing it through sheer determination so that I can stand in front of large groups of top-level people, talk about new products, and tell them there are better ways if needs be. We can practice making eye contact, communicating with people and saying no (with reasonable explanation) in our personal and work lives, which makes the process of asserting ourselves, delivering clear messages, and saying no, a much more natural process - almost a habit.
More tips can be found in this great article in Reader's Digest.
Understand that it really is ok to say no
It would be a minor miracle if we all liked each other every day, particularly within the work environment – love them as we might, we have not chosen to spend all day, every day with the people in our workplace. When you say ‘no’ to a request, it is perfectly natural to feel that you have created disappointment and to feel unhappy about that. However, it is important to keep your own objectives in mind.
Your objectives for your day-to-day working life are just as important as those of your boss or colleagues and, ultimately, you should all be working towards the same business goals. If you feel that the things you are doing and the way in which you are doing them is working towards those goals, it is worth explaining that in response to why you will not prioritise something else. Taking this approach means that your ‘no’ response is objective, well thought-out and difficult to reason against. It will help to re-balance the power in your relationship with the person doing the requesting and, ultimately, should lead to more rational and more reasonable requests being made in future.