Organisational culture rewards assertiveness, and yet it’s not always possible to be assertive. Some people are naturally shy and reticent. They find it impossible to ask for that raise they know they deserve. Others, who might be assertive in some contexts, find themselves at a loss when faced with certain difficult personalities or teams that are dominated by a skewed dynamic.
We understand intuitively that managers need some degree of self-confidence to be effective. The right amount of assertiveness, respect for others, and emotional and intellectual intelligence is what makes a great leader. However, we are less aware that it’s important for everyone to develop assertiveness to one degree or another. Here’s where it gets tricky. It’s possible for those who aren’t accustomed to being assertive to get it wrong.
“There’s a sweet spot for assertiveness. If you’re below the range, you’re not going to get your way. If you’re above it, you’re not getting along with others,” says Daniel Ames, a professor of management at Columbia Business School and author of Pushing Up to a Point: Assertiveness and Effectiveness in Leadership and Interpersonal Dynamics.
Another problem is that when you are comfortable with your boss or your co-workers, it’s easy to be yourself, to express your personality, to state your needs and desires, to be authentic. If you are feeling threatened, on the other hand, you tend to second guess what you say, you might hold back or you might overreact and speak out of turn.
You should not always assume that assertiveness is a good thing — both your work context and your gender matter. Don’t imitate someone else’s behaviour. Authenticity is important, and striking a false note will undermine your goals. And whatever you do, if you find yourself overcompensating for a feeling of helplessness, don’t become aggressive. You need to find the right balance between achieving your goals and remaining considerate of others.
The good news is that the right degree of assertiveness can be learned. The key is to understand the context, assess your behaviour, and then make the appropriate adjustments.
So how do you develop assertiveness to the right degree?
Understand the context
Assertiveness is not universally understood to be a positive trait. Before you make changes to your behaviour, know the context you are working in. Does the culture truly value forcefulness? Or do you work in a situation where a persuasive, quiet approach is sometimes more well-received?
You can evaluate your level of assertiveness do this by assessing your own behaviour or asking others for input. According to Ames, you should take a success inventory. He says: “Over a defined period of time — a few weeks or a month — before entering a discussion or meeting, ask yourself, What do I want from this situation? Then, afterwards, evaluate the results: Did I get what I wanted? This will create a track record of your success and indicate whether you need to adjust your style. Objectively rating your own behaviour can be difficult, however. The connection between what we think we’re doing and what others see is often ‘off’. Therefore, Ames recommends getting feedback from trusted colleagues or conducting a 360-degree review.
Follow through with your goals
If you find in your assessment that you are holding back in situations where you shouldn’t, ask yourself what you aren’t saying and why you’re keeping quiet. Next time you enter a similar situation, rehearse what you are going to say and how you will say it beforehand. Focused incremental changes add up to real change. You might give yourself a week to initiate a difficult conversation with a colleague, for example. Or tell yourself that whenever you’re in a group discussion, you’ll speak up within the first two minutes.
Connect with others
Relational contexts matter— especially to reserved types. People often hold back because they are uncomfortable in a situation — either because they don’t know people or they’re afraid of what others might think. Socialising breaks down barriers. If this isn’t possible, integrate humour and a degree of playfulness to your working style.
Remember, you’re not changing your character; you are making deliberate choices about how you behave. “Don’t feel you have to muster interpersonal coldness to accompany your assertion. Feel free to be friendly and empathic while asking for your needs to be met,” says Ames. Find your own style instead of trying to imitate others. Nor do you need to be more assertive in every context every day. “You can bring out your competitive side when it’s useful and you can dial back and be accommodating when it’s helpful,” says Ames.
As with most things, developing assertiveness begins with self-awareness: Are you as assertive as you want and need to be? How do others see you? Are you reactive? Do you clam up in stressful situations? Do you feel you are able to be your authentic self most of the time? If not, what are the factors that are affecting how you perform?
Developing assertiveness is a worthy process: When you get it right, you’ll end up with greater confidence, smoother relationships, and maybe even that raise you deserve (but used to be nervous asking for).