5 Steps to Assertiveness in the Workplace

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Do you want to tell your boss an important matter but are afraid to say so for fear of rejection?  In a meeting, do you want to ask a question to clarify but afraid to be taken for as a ‘slow’ person? Do you want to bring up a raise you deserve but are afraid to ask for it due to some false humility?

Welcome to the world of fear and passive living. Many people are too afraid to make a stand for themselves by practicing assertiveness in their workplace for the fear of rejection. 

Yet by keeping themselves in their comfort zone, they lose a lot and end up hurting their personal worth as well as their value to the company they work for.

The Need to Improve Assertiveness at Workplace

I struggled hard to overcome passive behaviour which I found myself into when I entered the working world after college.  I was a shy kid but I thought I have overgrown that stage when I reached my teens when I met new friends.

However, I realized I had to battle on a different level when I stepped into the working scene.  I had to learn how to fight for what I believe in.  It’s so easy not to do this among friends as we don’t have to take arguments seriously.

But when we mean business, it’s a totally different thing.  At work, I need my job because it’s the only way to survive.  If I do not speak up, I will end up doing all the work, taking all the blame when things screw up and worst of all, lose my source of income.

The other consequence is when all the frustrations are suppressed and left unattended to, they will end up exploding into madness or aggression.  Something anyone will probably regret doing afterwards.

This awakening also made me see that all other aspects of my life can blow up if I do not start acting more in charge of my life.  It was like a wake-up call.

Assertiveness as the Third Alternative

Meg Selig, author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success suggests this third alternative to an aggressive or submissive/passive expression: being assertive.  In her article in Psychology Today, it was defined as “direct, honest, and appropriate way of standing up for your rights while respecting the rights of others.”

Assertiveness is the middle ground between passive and aggressive behaviour.  It can be described as the best alternative and most professional way of communicating with others.

How do you move from the two extremes to this point?  This is not an easy task especially if you have grown into the bad habit of letting yourself down.

I started digging up resources to find ways to be more up to my toes. I picked up books on assertiveness; observed personalities in dramas as well as in real life and identified points for improvement; and experimented on myself by attempting to speak up.

Recollecting them, it turned out that these are a few steps that will give anyone a head start to achieve a better condition for oneself in one’s work environment.

Let me share with you how I battled on living an assertive behaviour and how I continue to the fight.

1) Focus on specific areas, issues and people.

It would be too terrible to think that you are struggling with this issue for every single scenario or area of your career and every person you deal with. Take into consideration a priority list so you can focus on these items first.

Which is the most important aspect of your work – could it be talking to your boss because he tends to be a terror and slave driver? Or is it your senior colleagues whom you feel inferior to due to their experience? Could it be some difficulty in speaking up at meetings because you are afraid to see everyone’s attention focused at you? Have you been bullied with workload? Do you cave in to giving in to customer demands without being firm about certain issues?

2) Prepare potential scenarios, options and triggers.

Putting a new ‘strategy’ to how you face your challenges is not as easy as 1-2-3.  You need to come up with a plan so that the moment the challenge appears, you got it ready.

More often, you have the answers on what to do to address the issues. What you need is a trigger or your initiative that will help you ‘push’ yourself and start ‘talking’. It goes with the adage, “throw your hat over the fence so that you have to go out of the fence to pick it up”.

Being assertive requires a trigger in every situation because it is the point where you consciously choose how to behave. You can prepare to be assertive but if you do not execute the plan, it is meaningless. Check out these examples:

  • Facing a terror boss who fires up series of questions – prepare potential questions, get your references ready with you (schedule, list of issues, project details), be ready to speak up when the boss pauses* or raises a question*. The other option if he does not pause is to politely interrupt*.
  • Asking about more details of a task – set up a time* to discuss which gives your colleagues an idea of your need
  • Speaking up in a meeting – come early before the meeting starts and start making light conversations* with those attending the meeting
  • Saying ‘no’ to additional workload when you are burnt out – respond by informing the person about your workload and how long he needs to wait to be able to finish the task properly and without rush* or by saying you cannot do it at all*

*specific triggers

3) Prepare what to say.

After getting yourself the determination to get the attention of others for a specific concern, the next task to do is what and how you are going to say it.  Words matter.

It may sound overly serious but if you need to prepare a script of what you should say, then do so. At least pick the right words for you to cue what to say.

  • When interrupting someone who fires up a lot of questions: ‘Sorry to interrupt you but let me clarify on this concern…’
  • When someone speaks fast and you do not get anymore what he is trying to say:  ‘Excuse me, can you speak slowly?’
  • Starting a light conversation before a meeting, you can start talking about the weather, about a common interest (if you know the person a bit more), or a recent company event.
  • When saying no, explain your side to be clear: ‘I can’t take this work because I’m overloaded and I think it will affect my other projects if I start a new one”

4) Be firm with your position.

If it has been a challenge for you to stand up or speak up about your concern, it is likely that your attempt to assertiveness will cave in upon triggering a conflict, a negative reaction or a sweet talk without any resolution.  You might end up giving in or at the very least dismiss what you yourself have raised by saying ‘forget it, it’s fine’.

You need to establish credibility for yourself by standing by your own cause (of course assuming you are on the right and reasonable side).  That means that you do not have to retract your statement by telling someone ‘never mind’ or leaving the situation without any direction.

After raising the issue, there must be a resolution or an action point. Using the same scenarios we have been talking about, you must ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who takes the work you cannot take any more?
  • How else can you learn and clarify details of a task if your meeting was cancelled?  What other option do you have to achieve the objective?
  • What happens if verbal instruction does not work because the person talking simply has a different accent or is hard to understand?

Do not leave this hanging.  If it gets postponed, you need a follow up.

5) Be consistent.

There is no better way to making assertiveness part of you other than by being consistent.  That means that the resolution or action point that you were able to drive in facing challenges must be faced in the same energy as you did the first time.

This does not mean that you have to wait for the last moment to practice assertiveness.  Rather, this becomes more a proactive stance in facing the same challenges.

Take a look at options when faced with a repetitive situation you are caught in:

  • Rather than facing a moment where you are given loads of work you cannot take, discuss regularly your work load and flag any potential overload.
  • Rather than wait for you to commit a serious mistake in your work because of lack of coaching from senior people, talk to your immediate boss about it.
  • Do not get back to your old wallpaper mode self when in a meeting but keep it consistent by developing better relationship with members of the team.

Upgrading assertiveness

Develop your assertive behaviour by doing one small act at a time. While there are more important issues you need to immediately address, you also test yourself by starting with small steps. If you apply these steps, no matter how small these acts are, it helps you practice the behaviour and without even knowing it, you will be able to achieve greater goals.

Think of an important assertiveness challenge you currently experience and how you can apply the five steps.

Try this for a week and share the results with us.

Photo by FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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Rob Leonardois the creator of ConfidenceCues. He wrote the Manifesto of Confident People Series for his blog as a guiding principle for everyone who wants to improve and keep their self-confidence alive. The series culminates with a challenge to readers -- to launch their own personal projects of change through FREE online mastermind sessions.


  1. Warren on the 13th February

    Every time it’s getting close to review time, or that time when you’re about to ask for a raise it’s so stressful that being assertive is a much harder task that it might otherwise normally be. It’s at times like these that sleep too seems to be ever elusive! 🙂

  2. Rob Leonardo on the 14th February

    Hey Warren, that’s a sign you need to build up more self-confidence. One area that you need to check is your skill-set at work. If you deserve a raise or an excellent performance review, you just have to do it. The easier route is not to wait till the performance review time to ‘show’ it. Show your low-hanging fruits (early or little successes) every now and then as a way of connecting to your boss.

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