Updated: Sep 12
Becoming more assertive at work is no longer a quality reserved only for leaders.
It's now critical to workplace survival.
If there's anything that the forced and disgraceful kiss of Luis Rubiales to Jenni Hermoso during the World Cup win has taught us, it's that women must protect themselves at all costs. No workplace is safe unless stringent measures are put in place and accountability has begun from the top, and in several cases, this has proved to be the total opposite of corporate reality.
When I was working full time in corporate, I was fortunate enough to not have to experience, or witness, sexual harassment. But I did experience and notice racial discrimination, unconscious bias, and ageism.
I quickly learned to buckle up and master the essential leadership skill of being more assertive in my work environment. I never allowed anything to slide under the radar, no matter how high the authority level of the person it came from.
Hermoso and her team, as well as Spanish supporters, understood the power of standing up to "the boss" and protecting themselves as women, ensuring that by all means possible, through strikes and demonstrations, such an action would not be perpetuated or allowed to brushed under the carpet.
If you're seeking to grow in your leadership career, owning your voice at work is a skill that needs to be grasped.
Below are five ways we can be more assertive as women, and own our voices in the workplace:
Face conflict head-on
A few months ago I was coaching one of my clients, who had recently been promoted to a director role, and she said to me, "I desperately need to know how to speak up and own my voice at work. My colleague is abusive towards me but I usually shy away from that because I don't like conflict."
My challenge to her?
Address the root-cause of the conflict head-on. The more you turn a blind eye to something that makes you, or others, uncomfortable, just for the sake of peace, the more you perpetuate the issue and teach others how to continue to disrespect you in the workplace.
Where safe and reasonably possible, address the person upfront and let them know that their actions, whether mild or otherwise, make you feel uncomfortable. There is no reasonable justification they should give you except an apology and seeking to remedy the damages caused where appropriate. You can even get a leadership coach or attend conflict resolution masterclasses so you can better address and prevent such issues moving forward.
If, of course, you are unable to or don't feel comfortable addressing the perpetrator, you can seek HR advice and escalate to your boss, or your manager's boss if the your boss is the person concerned.
While addressing conflict, be sensitive to the situation, as appropriate. For example, one time as a contract manager I was in a corporate training session that was being led by an external trainer, seated around a boardroom table with my peers. The trainer made a sweeping generalization and joke during the session that I personally found to be underpinned by unconscious bias, due to me being the sole ethnic minority in the room, and the youngest manager in the room as well.
Instead of calling him out right in the middle of the session, I maintained my personal composure and addressed my manager in the breakout area afterwards, explaining the issue frankly, and told her why I felt that the trainer was out of place.
My manager spoke to him after the training and he apologized profusely afterwards.
And that was it!
While of course it would be trivial of me to say that every workplace injustice or grievance should be handled in the same way, try as much as possible to seek to follow policy and be tactful in your approach.
Don't second-guess yourself
Especially when it comes from someone further up the corporate hierarchy, it's easy to receive victim-blame and even blame yourself or question your own thinking!
"Maybe I was over-reacting." "Maybe it's just me." "Maybe he/she didn't mean it that way after all."
Never second-guess your feelings. If something doesn't feel right, 99% of the time you're right. Whether experiencing it first-hand or witnessing it with others in the workplace, never second-guess or question yours or the victim's feelings, thus becoming a perpetuator. Your voice matters, you deserve to be heard, and no one is more important than you, even if their job title is more senior than yours.
Understand your rights
No one is more powerful than when they come backed by proof, evidence, and a ton of policies and books. As soon as you start a new role, familiarize yourself with your workplace policies and establish key points of contact as relates to employment law. That way, you won't be blind-sided if someone tries to use your apparent ignorance to their advantage.
For example, in one of my roles, a manager accidentally miss-quoted my contract and claimed I had breached my contract of work, when in fact I had not. Because I was familiar with my contract and had it on hand on my desktop, I easily pulled it up and showed her where she was wrong, which of course worked in my favor.
Don't be afraid to say "no"
Sometimes, owning one's voice as a leader and in the workplace is as simple as being unafraid of the word "no." We don't like to use this word too often as we shy away from making people feel uncomfortable or being pointed out as the bad person, and no one likes to be disliked.
You need to shift your affinity with "no" and embrace it. Instead of being scared to point out when someone does something wrong, politely decline/tell them no upfront. You owe it to yourself and the maintenance of your own self-respect.
While you may not be able to control how others treat you in the workplace, you can certainly control what you tolerate and how you permit people to respect or disrespect you as a professional. Undermining, harassment, and discrimination comes in many forms, and can range from subtle and overt, to conspicuous and aggressive. No matter who it comes from or how it demonstrates itself, confront and challenge the perpetrator tactfully, refuse to second-guess yourself, build your awareness of laws and policies that are in place to protect you, and never be afraid to shun unwanted advances or anything that makes you feel uncomfortable with a forceful no.
Most importantly, if you're in a workplace that tolerates such behavior, seriously reconsider your position there and strategically plan your exit.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this, you’d also love my weekly newsletter I release every Wednesday for new and aspiring managers.
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