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Be Assertive — But Not A Jerk

Find the right balance, though, because standing your ground is not always seen as positive

Harvey Mackay headshot
Harvey Mackay
Be Assertive

A new college graduate reported for work on the first day and looked forward to meeting with her boss. She asked if she could speak first and proceeded to inform the boss that she would not be working on Fridays and would expect to have new office furniture of her choosing. She also let it be known that any criticism of her work would be viewed as harassment since she was schooled in all the latest methods and practices.

The boss sat silent, which the new grad interpreted as agreement. But then he stood up and said, “I’m not sure who you talked to about this or why you think you have that kind of authority on your first — and possibly last — day here, but the answers are no, no, and no. And while I admire your assertiveness, you might want to work on your people skills.”

Assertiveness can help you express yourself effectively and stand up for your point of view, but it can also intimidate and scare others. You don’t want to be viewed as a bully or arrogant. Finding the right amount of assertiveness is the key because assertiveness is not always seen as a positive trait.

Being assertive means being self-confident, firm, positive, decisive, and empathic, all rolled into one. Studies show that assertive people have better self-esteem, reduced mental health issues and stress, have healthier and more reciprocal relationships, and just have better overall satisfaction with their lives.

Simply put, assertive people get ahead, but you must know the territory. Some companies and geographic areas value more assertiveness, while others prefer a more persuasive and quieter approach.

I’ve found that seeking feedback from colleagues is the best course on how to proceed and become more comfortable in speaking up. Another tactic is assessing your own behavior if you are honest and truthful. Are you fearful of asking or stating what you want?

Assertiveness will help you build positive relationships at work. And assertiveness, like most constructive traits, can be learned. Here are some practical tools that can help you take control of your career:

Warren Buffett

Target your goal. Take a moment to identify what you want from an interaction with a co-worker or manager. Our desire to please others can get in the way of what we really need. Think about your own objectives and constraints before agreeing to requests for help.

Be specific. The fewer mixed messages you send to people, the more likely you’ll get what you want from them. For example, instead of saying something like, “I need that sometime today, if possible,” specify when you need something from a colleague.

Ask for more information. You need information to make good decisions for yourself. If you think a boss is making an unreasonable request, ask for clarification. That way you can understand the request more fully, and you’ll have the confidence to say “yes” or “no.”

Take ownership of your message. Use “I” phrases instead of trying to pawn off responsibility. Say, for example, “I need that report on my desk by the end of the day,” instead of “They want the report today.”

Say “no” when necessary. In an attempt to seem cooperative or nice, many of us don’t know how to say “no.” When you need to turn down a request, provide a short reason why you can’t do it. Don’t be overly apologetic — just be firm and polite. Warren Buffett said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

Watch your emotions. Try not to get angry or show frustration. Conflict can be uncomfortable. If you are too emotional, delay if possible. Remain calm and breathe slowly. Keep your voice steady and strong.

Use assertive body language. Studies show that body language is just as important, if not more, than actual words. Maintain eye contact and use expressions and gestures wisely. Keep an upright posture, leaning forward. Don’t cross your arms or legs.

Start small. Develop your assertive skills in low-risk situations by practicing with people with whom you are close and trust. Solicit their feedback and evaluate yourself and then adjust your approach. With regular practice, you will become more comfortable and natural and less threatening.

The new grad in the first story could have used this advice — for this job or finding her next one.

Mackay’s Moral: Standing up for yourself isn’t about changing the other person. It’s about honoring your self-worth.

This article was originally published in the NMP Magazine September 2023 issue.
Harvey Mackay headshot
Harvey Mackay
Published on
Aug 29, 2023
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