There are a lot of forces at play in the office. The social element of working with people means simply being excellent at what you do is often not enough, you need to engage in the art of influence.
This is really tough for some people, who either aren’t skilled, aren’t confident enough or simply don’t want to ‘play games’. But let’s take a look at what happens when you aren’t assertive…
Your communication shuts down
If your response to someone overriding your opinion or being rude is to simply accept it while the anger burns beneath the surface then you’ll quickly find that your ability to communicate positively and freely with other people around the office drops significantly.
By not responding to the initial action that made you feel intimidated you can quickly find yourself in that loop where you think “nobody listens to me”, which is followed quickly by you not speaking up, which then confirms that your opinions and wants aren’t heard or responded to.
Your health suffers
Workplace stress is a serious problem, much more so than popular opinion would have you believe. It isn’t always the CEOs and senior managers that suffer, either. In fact, many people in this role are much more adept at expressing themselves and coping with social and job pressures.
The ‘learned helplessness’ that comes from a habit of not being assertive results in massive levels of stress. Think of how angry you get when you feel that people don’t take you seriously, or don’t listen to your ideas, suggestions and feedback. This is a lot of energy that doesn’t leave your body; instead it swirls around and usually expresses itself as higher cortisol levels, which has a wide range of adverse effects on your immunity, among other things.
Everyone should be comfortable speaking out about their rights
The sad thing is that many people don’t, and they have no idea where to start gaining the confidence. It is up to both the individual and the organisation to create a climate of confidence in speaking out about rights. The main barrier to people being more assertive is that they overestimate the negative outcomes and underestimate the positive that can come out of it.
“Why speak up, she won’t listen to me anyway?” is a common spoken resistance, when underneath there is a feeling of fear that the reaction to them asserting themselves will be ferocious and too much to handle. This paralysing fear is the biggest roadblock to assertiveness. This fear also stops us from realising that even if a conflict arises from speaking up, that in the long term it will help significantly.
Managers should encourage an open, honest culture where people do not feel scared to speak up
An assertive manager may not remember what it is like to be intimidated by people in senior positions, or know what it is like to feel powerless when someone is overstepping the mark. However, a strong manager will realise that this happens every day, and it is part of their role to help everyone in their team reach their potential.
Meetings are a common place for idea exchange, but often it is the same two or three people that create the conversation churn while everyone else sits there too scared, or too laconic to contribute. The chairperson should be soliciting ideas from everyone in the room, and actively stepping in if anyone criticises or dismisses a suggestion that hasn’t been worked through in a respectful manner.
A lack of assertiveness within individuals prevents their full potential being reached. If this happens within every team except for the two or three extraverts, then there is an amazing amount of talent, energy, enthusiasm and productivity that isn’t being reached.
Eve Ash is a psychologist and filmmaker. Eve welcomes participants to her next MELBOURNE HALF DAY WORKSHOP at AIM St Kilda, 13 March 2013 8.30am: How to Present Yourself and Your Ideas with More Impact.