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I coach many talented people, and one of the most common challenges I come across is how to be more assertive at work.

It could be that they have the skills but were passed over for promotion, or they are feeling overwhelmed by the workload, and they feel unable to push back.

There are a multitude of reasons why people want to find and exercise some assertiveness within their workplace, and it is well within everyone’s grasp, but you need the right approach.

What is stopping you being assertive

Let’s take a look at why you are not asserting yourself as you might like. For many people, it is the desire to be liked. They assign someone’s adoration, whether that is a leader of the company, a direct line manager or potential client as a route to success.

The challenge with wanting to be liked or being nice all the time is that, while it may make others feel good for a while, it’s based on self-interest.

The problem with being ‘nice’ to be liked is that it is very rarely a true reflection of how you feel and certainly isn’t helping you achieve your goal. This leads to potential lies to avoid rocking the boat or hurting people’s feelings.

So while it may seem like you are trying to help someone and show genuine concern for the interests of the other person by making them feel better, it is yourself you are trying to please.

Good leadership will never succeed by trying to make everyone happy. Some interesting research certainly highlighted the correlation between good leadership and assertiveness.

The research highlighted that those leaders who rated highly in good judgement but low on assertiveness only had a 4.2% chance of being a successful leader.

Those that ranked highly for assertiveness but poorly for good judgement were rated as having a 12.5% chance of being an effective leader.

But those who ranked highly for both were thought to have a 71% chance of being a strong leader.

So while it is by no means the silver bullet, it is definitely a key component in the attributes of any successful leader.

How to be more assertive at work

To go from being a people pleaser to all of a sudden, asserting yourself at work is not going to happen overnight. However, there are some practices you can implement to improve continually.

Understanding the difference between aggressive vs assertive

How to be more assertive at work

One of the main obstacles passive people have to overcome is the fear that assertiveness is perceived as aggressive behaviour.

There are many clear differences between the two. An aggressive approach is about confrontation and is based on bullying and intimidation. For some people, they’ve always acted this way and have similar, self-centred motivations to the passive individual, their aim personal success with little concern for the individuals involved.

An assertive approach is a more considered approach, taking account of the various aspects of the debate and having the confidence to state the case. It takes strength of character and is especially important when faced with the aggressive individual.

An assertive approach is not about confrontation. It is about having the strength of character and confidence in your contribution to state your case despite what you might fear is the fallout. It is about building your integrity.


How to be more assertive at work

Self-confidence is at the crux of most of what we discuss when we are looking at building assertiveness.

The biggest barrier I find in helping people with assertiveness is a severe lack of self-confidence. This low self-worth is what drives the necessity to receive positive feedback from being nice. It is what prevents individuals from speaking up in meetings and accepting the situation based on other people’s assertions.

This lack of confidence can very often lead to anxiety, stress and depression.

There are no easy answers to becoming a confident individual. However, recognising your successes, even small achievements, can start to build a positive base from which to build.

One thing I tend to suggest is noting down daily successes, either at work on at home. No more than three but the aim is to start to build a positive picture of yourself in your mind. Everyone experiences successes, but those that lack confidence only remember the failures.


How to be more assertive at work

Pressure can affect any attempt you make to improve your assertiveness. When you face a challenging situation, perhaps with an aggressive colleague, or you have to go up against a more senior colleague, it can make you mix up your words or revert to type, to save face.

As you will hear in our Agile Speaker series, the secret to excellent communication is preparation. When you know you are going to have to face up to your own demons and battle with the compulsion to revert to telling people what they want to hear, it will help you to be prepared.

Set out a plan of what you want to say and how you want to say it. Make sure you know what your end goal is.

Also, make sure you have looked into the detail of whichever side of the debate you are on. Putting forward good, well thought through proposals will only strengthen your confidence and earn the respect you need.

It might help to play out the scenario with a friend or colleague. Talking out loud can give you the confidence once you have heard the discussion play out. Also, try and use ‘I’ rather than ‘you’. It avoids pushing the problem onto the person you are talking to.


How to be more assertive at work

Honesty is a common thread throughout this article. To be truly assertive, you need to be honest with yourself first and foremost. Then you need to be honest with your colleague.

Sometimes honesty is incredibly difficult, but it is always the best policy. Trying to second guess what the person on the other side of the table wants to hear leads to indecision, a lack of clarity and confusion which severely impacts on assertiveness.

The first time you try this, it will be tough. However, for many, it will be a liberating experience. You will finally get a chance to be true to your own beliefs instead of seeking the approval of others. Then, just as with so many more things in life, the more you do it, the easier it becomes until it is second nature.


There is no easy fix for solving the problem of how to improve your assertiveness at work. However, start with recognising your value and gaining some level of self-worth. Add to that some preparation and confidence, and you will start to see a real change in your approach, as will others around the office.

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