"I Can’t Make Myself Assertive Enough at Work"

Speaking up, saying no, and networking.

Posted Jun 14, 2020

WallpaperFlare, Public Domain
Source: WallpaperFlare, Public Domain

A number of my clients have a hard time being assertive at work. These composite questions are typical. I include my responses.

    Dear Dr. Nemko: I have trouble speaking up at work and in conversations with friends. I’m afraid of being shot down or sounding stupid, for example, not considering important facts,  ideas, or perspectives. Also, my religion, Christianity, stresses the importance of not being willful. Any advice?

    My response:  As an atheist who has never been a Christian nor studied it much, i don't feel qualified to respond regarding your religion's teaching.

    But secularly speaking, it’s probably to your credit that you’re cautious before speaking up. Too many people have the excessive confidence to speak forcefully even if they've usually been wrong. Perhaps you can gain more confidence to speak up by, when a topic is being discussed, first letting others have their say. That way your comment can incorporate the ideas you’re afraid you won’t have considered. And it gives you the opportunity to give others credit: For example, “As Mary said…” Plus, by being the last to discuss the topic, your input may be the most remembered.

    Dear Dr. Nemko: I have a hard time saying no to requests from supervisees and especially from bosses. How can I get more comfortable saying no?

    My response: Kind people are understandably reluctant to say no: It disappoints the other person, perhaps hurts their feelings, and their request may be reasonable but you can't grant it, at least for now.

    You may be more willing to say no if you recognize that doing that is an important part of being a good boss: Resources are never unlimited, requests that serve an individual may not serve the common good, etc. Sure, default to yes, but be reassured that part of being a good manager is being willing to tactfully and with a brief, cogent explanation, say no.

    One example: Let's say that your boss is asking your workgroup to produce as much work as before the COVID layoff. A possible response: 

    When you laid-off two people from my work group and told us our priorities, I asked my supervisees to assess whether their workweek (45+ hours on average)—reflected those priorities. As a result, they made adjustments. I feel uncomfortable asking my supervisees to work more. What do you think?

    Dear Dr. Nemko: Everyone says it's important to network, even if you already have a job, which I do. But I’m afraid of imposing and worse, of seeming like a schmoozer. I’d rather just put my head down and work. Should I just accept that I’m not a networker?

    My response: You’re right that, even if you're employed, networking is helpful. It can provide inside information on current trends and people in your field. It can provide insurance against future unemployment—Your network may help you get another job. And if you are employed, your network can help you get a better job: informing you of not-yet-published openings and helping you get them. Besides, most people intrinsically value having relationships with professional peers. Fortunately, not all networking is schmoozing. Here are other ways to network:

    • Asking colleagues for help and offering yours. Yes, that can be seen as a sign of weakness, but especially if you limit requests to difficult issues, the person is likely to be flattered that you asked. Thus you will have built a networking connection and learned something. Conversely, offer to help someone you sense would welcome it.
    • Give a talk or write an article. If you have the gift of oral or written gab, that’s a great non-schmoozy way to network.
    • Stay in contact with existing colleagues. Is there at least one colleague with whom you might try to deepen the relationship? For example, ask them to lunch (if only virtually amid the COVID lockdown,) take a hike together, etc.?
    • I read this aloud on YouTube.