How to Be More Assertive in the Workplace

Confident business woman looking out of office window

In the workplace, getting through to people can be a tricky task. You may have a tight-fisted boss who’s withholding your raise, for instance, or a demanding supervisor who views you as a walking filing cabinet. Alternatively, you might be sick of your ideas being routinely discarded at the weekly office huddle. Either way, in order to make any headway in such a competitive environment, you need to consistently demonstrate one essential quality when you walk through those doors each day: assertiveness.

Of course, not everybody is wired to be confrontational; if you have an agreeable nature, then the thought of potentially upsetting someone or causing a stir probably sounds mortifying. But in reality, knowing how to be more assertive at work is an essential part of progressing, both in terms of being good at your job and working your way up the ladder. Indeed, if it’s done right, not only will people naturally come to respect you more, but you will be far happier and more secure in your role – which means you will also be more effective.

Although such a radical change of approach can take time to implement, it’s not impossible: changing small daily habits and behaviours can have a much wider effect and impact than you perhaps initially realise. Therefore, we’ve compiled a few handy tips and techniques that you can apply and develop each day, enabling you to stand up for yourself and finally get the recognition that you deserve.

These are the seven key things that you need to know.

1. Understand the Difference Between ‘Assertive’ and ‘Aggressive’

Before you start making demands and telling your colleagues what’s what, it’s important to realise that being confrontational and abrasive is not the same as being assertive; in fact, it’s arguably the polar opposite.

Aside from the fact that shouting at people is not an encouraged or productive practice in the modern workplace, it also highlights a lack of calmness and control. Remember: assertiveness is not about discrediting or belittling others; it’s about having faith in your own ideas and abilities and projecting that confidence in the right way.

2. Use the Correct Language

Your interactions with colleagues and superiors are hugely influential in how you are perceived at work; therefore, assertive communication is an important part of bridging this gap.

Always be direct and to the point with what you are saying. If you ‘need’ something to be done, then say that you ‘need’ it to be done; don’t meander or ‘wonder’ if your colleague ‘has the time’ to ‘possibly’ complete a task. This isn’t being rude; instead, you’re simply being clear, a communicative technique known as speaking in headlines.

Avoid using fillers when you’re talking as well, such as ‘um’ or ‘err’ (if you need to, brush up on your public speaking skills in a mirror at home). How you communicate verbally has a monumental effect in the workplace, so ensure that your voice is being listened to.

3. Use the Correct Body Language

Of course, communication is not just verbal, however. Your physical presence can also play a big part in how you come across to others, so ensuring that you pay heed to your body language is also key.

This doesn’t mean that you need to dole out bone-crushing handshakes in order to establish dominance, but it does mean that you should stand up straight, maintain eye contact and, yes, give a relatively firm handshake. All these actions exude confidence and sincerity, and even if they are primarily effective on a subconscious level, they are proven to work. You don’t need to be seven foot tall to be assertive, after all; you just need to feel like you are.

4. Trust Your Ability and Your Judgement

While it’s all well and good to look and sound the part, you can’t get by on projection alone; in order to be truly assertive, you have to actually know what you’re talking about as well.

This is where self-belief comes in. It can be easy to feel like you’re not much of an expert in your chosen field, but the truth is you are enough of an authority that you convinced your employers to hire you. Therefore, you do know what you’re talking about, even if you have doubts about your abilities. If you know for certain that what you are saying is right, then it’s an awfully lot easier to say it with some weight and power behind it.

This applies in a practical sense, too. For example, if you’re sick of working late and you’re not getting any of the time back, then read through the relevant employment directives, contracts and company policies so that you can refer to them in your complaint. Always arm yourself with the necessary knowledge to back up what you are saying, or your argument won’t hold any sway at all.

5. Stop Apologising When You Don’t Need To

If you make a huge mistake at work, then at some point it’s probably a good idea to own up and say ‘sorry’. But for everything else, you don’t need to constantly apologise:

‘Sorry to be a pain, but can you clean the coffee pot after you’ve used it?’

‘Sorry but I need you to make those document changes so I can finish it’.

‘Sorry, I didn’t get a chance to look at those notes, but I had to file this important report. It won’t happen again’.

Not only is it unnecessary – you’re just trying to do your job, after all – but it also creates an unhealthy dynamic whereby you constantly accept responsibility for things that have gone wrong. Whether subliminally or otherwise, this will reflect badly on you in the long term, as well as erode your sense of competence and your self-belief that you’re actually any good at your job.

6. Where Possible, Do Your Preparation

If you know that you’re going to be having a particularly sensitive conversation with someone – say about a pay rise or when giving someone bad news – then it’s a good idea to do some preparation beforehand.

For example, if you know that you’re going to be asked a certain question, then have a strong, solid answer ready in your mind. That way, when you’re asked, you won’t be caught trying to piece a response together; instead, you will come straight back with a sound and logical retort that suggests you know exactly what you’re talking about, immediately putting you in a position of credibility.

7. Stop Caring What Other People Think

Although you shouldn’t follow this advice too literally (you don’t want to be a total office outcast, after all), this is perhaps the biggest obstacle to being assertive in the workplace. When you put so much emphasis on being liked, you may be unwilling to cross certain lines.

Say, for instance, that you have a disagreement with your colleague Mark about the best way to approach a task. As you don’t want to make a scene and Mark’s a nice guy, you let him take the lead, even though your idea is cheaper and more efficient. The end result is that the company loses time and you lose out on a promotion to Mark, who also happens to think that you’re a bit of a pushover; not a happy ending.

Alternatively, as you know that you’re right because you already did the calculations beforehand, you politely but firmly point out why your idea is the better option. You might have ruffled a few feathers, but the company saves money, you get the promotion and, while Mark is a little bruised at first, he respects you for standing your ground and is happy to work with you on the project. Definitely a much better outcome!

Don’t obsess over how people are going to perceive you or worry that being direct might offend someone. As long as you are respectful and courteous, you don’t need to spend time on what others might think.

As you can see, there are a lot of misconceptions around the idea of assertiveness at work; namely that you need to be loud in order to be heard, and that assertiveness itself is a natural quality that can’t be learnt or developed.

Neither of these assessments is true, and it’s entirely possible to alter your style and be taken more seriously in the office, especially if you train yourself to be aware of your behaviours. Remember: the next time you need to have that big chat with the boss, or you’ve got a lightbulb idea that needs to be listened to, it’s being assertive that is going to make you successful and that, ultimately, is going to help make your career successful.

Do you struggle to assert yourself at work? What other tips have you been given? Let us know in the comments section below!