Help with workplace assertiveness
July 26, 2007 9:16 PM   Subscribe

How do I become more assertive at work?

You wouldn't think I'd be such a wuss. I'm a lawyer, a litigator actually, with a big firm. And when it comes to actual verbal conflict--whether with opposing counsel or with some other adversary--I do well and people would probably say I'm aggressive or tough. But, when it comes to people that I actually work with every day--co-workers, assistants, subordinates, etc.--I am a pushover. I get walked all over, actually. When someone does a bad job, I say "it's pretty good," and then I fix it myself. When my assistant makes multiple terrible mistakes on important things, I give her a good review and can't bring myself to get a new assistant (which I really need). My problem, as best I can discern, is that I have no "middle gear" when it comes to dealing with people. I'm either Mr. Pushover, or I am in battle-mode and having a serious confrontation. I don't want to go into battle-mode with co-workers, assistants, etc. And I can't find a good, natural way to just assert myself without (my fear) having a total scene where I come on way too strong. How can I tell people that something's not OK in some friendly-constructive-critical way without causing a huge rupture?

I'd appreciate any advice.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Clearly communicate the issue, while at the same time explain it in a way that it is sympathetic to their problems and in their interest to change or fix the issue (longer answer in this book, seriously).

For instance, suppose you have a problem with someone who is not doing their job up to par, such as your assistant. You can say, "Look, Pat, but I'm concerned that you're not motivated by your work. I know there's a lot do do around here, and that I sometimes don't explain exactly what I need from you. What can we change to get you engaged in the work around here?"

Or the co-worker: "This judge has denied motions about this exact same issue before in Marbury v. Madison. Let's go back and look at the record to see if we can avoid having to deal with that again."
posted by Pants! at 10:19 PM on July 26, 2007

competence makes assertive. you are great in litigation because you know your stuff. you are less stellar in employee management because you haven't been trained properly in this field. that is not entirely your fault, many capable people are elevated into positions they were not trained for. it happened to me as well.

let's talk about your subordinates.
make a call about who is worth keeping -who has the potential to improve- and who is not. if your assistant is a hopeless cause, fire her right now. better a horrible end than horror without end. do it on a monday so she doesn't have to dwell upon it over the weekend and can shop her resume around the following day. be nice and give her ample time. if your assistant is worth keeping, take her out to lunch. tell her what you did not find adequate, make her understand that you still gave her a good review because you didn't want to harm her career and teach her how to do better. as a superior you are not the commander but teacher. you are supposed to help people be as good as you are. we all do work harder for people we like. use that.

I always try to talk to my people about negative things in private.
if a person screws up and someone is around, I will be charitable. most appreciate me seeking them out in private and being friendly to them about it as opposed to chewing them out in public. that is embarrassing fratboy behavior anyway. the "listen, don't make me look bad" approach works, as does "here's another way to do this" or "hey, why did you do it this way?" use empathy. when good people realize you are looking out for them, they will start looking out for you because they realize it is in their interest to stay around you. I am repeating myself because of how important this is.

distinguish between outright laziness/incompetence and an honest mistake. you cannot fix someone who doesn't have the drive. make sure to clearly communicate to those people what to expect and make them understand that it is in their best interest to not get their hopes up if they choose not to perform.

and finally: reward people when they come through not just with money. mention to them individually that they really did well. doing this personally as opposed to in a group setting will make the person feel all the more special/rewarded. reward people who have ideas, contribute in unexpected ways, go beyond the expected. you want people who can solve problems when you are not around.
posted by krautland at 10:24 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Just remember. It's not personal. When the assistant gives you work with errors, keep saying it looks pretty good, but add, "I'll look it over and get it back to you for corrections as soon as I can."

Then, mark it up right on the paper with a colored felt-tip, and give it back for corrections. This should not offend your assistant - they want to give you what you want, right? How can they do that if you keep it a secret? You're helping them do their job, not doing battle or criticizing. Make sure you mention if it was perfect. Nobody likes to be noticed only in a negative light.

If the paper has more markup than text, you may want to have a "I think you can do better than this. Is something wrong?" talk. Otherwise, keep in mind that nobody is perfect, and certainly won't get anywhere close to perfect with no real feedback - you are part of the refinement cycle.
posted by ctmf at 12:01 AM on July 27, 2007

I can say that I am the same way. I am too nice or unable to criticize people. But my recent promotion has forced me think in certain ways: I am in a position where I can do something about their professional development. As a matter of fact, it IS my job to challenge and motivate them. If what YOU need is their responsibility, you start out micromanaging them then give them more room as they prove themselves. If they test you, nip it in the bud. But do not let your emotions do the decision making for you, or it'll backfire BIGTIME. Always say let me get back to you on this and take a minute to calm down then give feedbacks with documentation(you'd know this better than anyone:) like via email, or follow up with an email saying, I gave you back the presentation with correction, I'd like you to proofread or revise it and give it back to me by COB tomorrow.

I think you should know that it IS ok to be stern and let them know that you only expect the best for them and from them when it comes to their professional development. It helps for them to know that you have the same expectations for yourself.

My advice is pick your battle. You cannot review EVERYTHING, but you can give feedbacks and encourage them to improve their work.

When it comes to colleagues, it's another story. I would read some management books...there are TONS out there. Pick one or two great ones, that deals with difficult people which includes those unable to do their work right. I've recently come across 'The First-Time Manager' by Loren B. Belker.

Hope you find it useful.
posted by icollectpurses at 12:27 AM on July 27, 2007

I totally identify with this. I was a divorce lawyer for 15 years and was great at having other people's arguments for them, but found it hard to stand up for myself in the office.

I changed careers a few years ago and now work in an ADR scheme. I remember when I was new-ish (a couple of years in the job) and I was allocated a new case that was completely outside my area of expertise. I knew, without a doubt, that it would become a 'bogey' file, and would sit, unworked on, like a ticking time bomb in my cabinet while I secretly stressed over it.

In the end, I plucked up the courage to speak to my manager and say "Look, I'm really sorry, but I think this case is way beyond my experience and expertise, it's probably better suited to Helen. Is there any way it could be reallocated? I'll take two other cases in return?"

I was terrified at having to do this, my heart was pounding and I was shaking as I approached her. I thought I'd be fired on the spot, but the manager didn't bat an eyelid, and took the file off me. After she'd looked at it, she agreed it was more suited to another person in the team who'd had years in private practice working in that field, and that was it. No drama.

Likewise, with secretaries, I'd sometimes do the corrections they should be doing. But the job got too busy for that. It was absolutely no problem to give them back the work with my handwritten amendments, saying "just a few revisions to this, thanks". I was a legal secretary myself before I became a lawyer, and revisions go with the job.

You're not doing your assistant any favours by letting her put out substandard work. One day there may be a mistake that results in major repercussions and if you're responsible for your assistant then you'll be held responsible for the mistake.

I see you acknowledge that your inability to assert yourself is fear-based. I used to be wracked with anxieties about dealing with co-workers. It is a learning curve, no doubt about it, but dealing with mistakes/problems as they come up is the best way, in my experience. If things are left, it gets harder to deal with them.

So next time your assistant gives you something that's not up to par, make notes on it about what needs to be done, and give it back to her with a "this needs a little more work". The first time you do it, I know it will be difficult. But it'll get easier with practice.
posted by essexjan at 12:31 AM on July 27, 2007

comment from someone who would prefer to stay anonymous:

I'd like to stay anonymous because I get paranoid that people will recognize who I'm talking about, which is probably irrational. Also because some of this makes me sound crazy.

I can't speak to how you become more assertive with colleagues, but I was an assistant in film for years, so I've had genius bosses and asshole bosses, and this is what I've decided:

I was a really great assistant. A phenomenal assistant. Except when I wasn't. The two kinds of people for whom I was a less than great assistant were:

*Yellers: it's hard to maintain your calm and do a good job when you could get berated at any time or have shoes thrown at you. I assume that you're not in this group.

*Ambivalent Bosses. Often, but not always, these were women. I was periodically a great assistant to these people, but then at times I'd slack off to a degree that astounded even myself. And I wouldn't listen to them. And all their requests would irritate me, and I wouldn't make much of an effort to do as I was asked or to turn in good work. I'd badmouth them a little to the other assistants. Then I'd get it together because I'm basically a nice, professional person, and I'd do a great job for a while. And then they'd start to annoy me again.

I think the problem assistants have with Ambivalent Bosses (and I suspect that you might be one) is that the A.B. isn't totally comfortable having power over someone. Assistants are kind of like dogs: if you are firm and fair and have realistic, achievable expectations and extremely consistent rules and you catch us doing right and then reward us (which is much - MUCH! - better than catching us doing something wrong and correcting us), we will slobber all over you and work hard for you and keep you looped in to the office gossip and brag about you to other assistants and be loyal for years and years after we've left you. If, however, we can sense your ambivalence about wielding power over a subordinate, we are total shits. And we push as far as you'll give and happily undermine your authority around the office. Blood in the water, man.

An example of Good Boss vs. Ambivalent Boss is how bosses will tell you to do something. A good boss who's comfortable with his power will say "Hey, Assistant? I need you to X,Y, Z by 3 today. Okay?" and you will say "Okay, boss!" and get on it. A good boss will also not check in and micro-manage every nine minutes, but will instead come back at about 2:15 and say "How's the X,Y and Z coming? Think we'll have it by 3?" and you as the assistant will say "Absolutely!" even if that's not true, and the boss will say "Awesome. You're the best." and you'll bask in the warm glow of the alpha dog's approval and get the project done, because you want MORE of the alpha dog's approval.

An A.B., though, when telling you to do something, will pretend that she's asking you for a favor. I hated this so much. All assistants hate it. It's awful. Listen, you're my boss, and you are allowed to do with my time as you please. That's the deal. Assistants are okay with that or they wouldn't be assistants, and the totally fake "Let's be friends! And can you do me this favor? Is that okay?" attitude makes me hate you. Really. You're not my friend if you can fire me. And can we not act like you care how I feel about doing your project? Ugh.

Reviews: reviews are stupid. As a boss, you should train your assistant like you'd train (sorry to keep coming back to this metaphor) a dog: frequently and consistently and fairly, with immediate rewards and corrections. A once-a-year lunch wherein you explain that you need more detail-oriented proofing of correspondence does nothing but make the assistant hate you and wonder why the hell you didn't bring this up before.

Punishment: does very little that's helpful, in my opinion. When a good alpha-dog boss reprimanded me on very rare occasions, I would go home and be upset because I had disappointed him - not because of the reprimand itself! - and I would never make that mistake again, but it also, for a little while, dinged my relationship with that person. An Ambivalent Boss who's constantly giving little tugs on the chain ("We need to be better about correspondence... We need to keep better track of the files...") is an annoyance you soon tune out.

I can attest to this: The bosses I still love and still feel loyal to, the bosses I helped get promoted when I worked for them, by guarding their back and their time and their reputation and talking them up and bringing them juicy gossip and generally making them look really good, those bosses were the people I knew believed I was smart, who believed I was their extremely capable superstar assistant, and who would periodically "accidentally" let me overhear them bragging about me. These were people who told me how much they appreciated my work and meant it: not in vague, Christmas card ways, but on another Friday night when I was leaving at 9 would call me in and thank me, and I would blush and drive home feeling happy and believing that I was part of a team. They were good at catching me doing something well and remarking on it.

But mostly, they were comfortable being in charge. It's relaxing on a very deep level to work for that person. You know that they're fair and consistent, so you can anticipate their response. You know that you can trust them to be the big shoulders. You know that you can just follow their lead, and that they're not going to try to be your buddy, or get emotional and guilt-trippy with you. If you turned something in and they were unhappy with it, they'd call you right back in and say "Hey, I need you to do another pass on this one, okay?" -- but they'd rarely need to do that, because you do a good job for that kind of boss the first time. Not because you fear the reprimand, but because you crave his approval.

That probably all sounds insane and daunting, but I suspect that it's more a case of

a) Stop thinking that your assistant is, or should be, your friend on any level.
b) Realize that your assistant needs a clear, stable hierarchy to be at his or her best.
c) Develop the mindset of a benevolent dictator: Stop worrying about if your assistant is pissed at you. You should never wonder if your assistant is pissed at you, because you are The Great Leader and who's anxious for whose approval should be a one-way street in your office.

Good luck. (PS, I'm not as crazy as this makes me sound.)
posted by jessamyn at 6:08 AM on July 27, 2007 [18 favorites]

"I notice ______________.
I feel ______________.
I want ______________.
I'm willing to ______________."

"I notice a lot of mistakes on this report. I feel worried that it looks unprofessional. I want you to fix these errors that I've marked / redo these sections / incorporate this additional info. I'm willing to set a time with you to go over this if you have any questions."

Advanced tip: The "I feel" should always be followed by an emotion, never by "like" or "that." You're talking about the direct effect on you with that one, not analyzing the situation.

When Anger Scares You is also a great book -- it talks about exactly what you mention, that what keeps people from expressing their anger is generally their fear that it will turn into rage (what you're calling "coming on way too strong"). Lynch does a nice job of differentiating anger (a wish for a constructive solution) from rage (the wish to destroy or hurt a threat), which I think is helping me realize that anger is totally fine and constructive and does not just "naturally" turn into all-out raging.
posted by occhiblu at 7:44 AM on July 27, 2007

The post from anonymous that jessamyn posted is 100% correct. 100000000% correct even. I would still do anything for a boss I had at my last job because she was absolutely an alpha-dog. She knew how to manage ME (which is different than managing Joe, or Bob, or anyone else). While you don't need to be friends with your assistant (and you should not be), you do need to take the time to get to know them and their working style.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:11 AM on July 27, 2007

I strongly recommend _Don't Shoot the Dog!_ by Karen Pryor. It's a very readable discussion of the principles of behaviorism as applied to training. Most of the stories concern animal training but not all. Pryor repeatedly points out that everything in there applies just as much in human relationships as in relationships between species. The anonymous advice that jessamyn posted is a very close match with what the book recommends. I think that the notion of 'alpha' and 'one-way' is a bit over emphasized but you would probably do better to lean a bit too far in that direction rather than not go far enough. Perhaps because Pryor is concerned that some of her readers will be turned off by her advice and label it 'manipulation', she spends some time showing how it is also similar to a conversation where both parties participate. That's just another way of thinking about it though, the practical advice remains the same.
posted by BigSky at 8:51 AM on July 27, 2007

And I can't find a good, natural way to just assert myself without (my fear) having a total scene where I come on way too strong.

You and a lot of people, don't feel bad about it. The person who stews and stews and stews till they blow up is a cliché because it's so common. You have a variant on that and the real solution is the same way you got good at that confrontational litigation style: practice.

Maybe you didn't practice it explicitly as litigation, but you had experiences that helped you develop that skill in some area. That's why it feels natural. Driving didn't feel natural when you did it first. Or kissing. Or writing a brief.

Stop letting the fact that it doesn't feel natural stop you from doing things you know you need to do and take solace in the fact that even if asking someone to provide you with reasonable quality product feels weird comes out sounding weird that you're entitled to it.
posted by phearlez at 11:07 AM on July 27, 2007

Two suggestions for learning the talking tactics:

* occhiblu's comment reminded me of a book -- Fierce Conversations. It gives a more complicated formula for really important conversations (like how to say "I'm going to have to fire you if you don't get your act together" in a much betterway than that). I'm not one for formulas, but I tried it once about something I was really upset about, and I was stunned by how well it went, compared to an earlier attempt to have essentially the same conversation. So I believe the formula definitely has something going for it.

* Not to offer obvious suggestions, but have you tried googling "assertiveness?" There are actually a lot of good references online.

Two suggestions for how to stick with this:

* Read the first chapter or so of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It's about how the goal should not be to learn tactics but to focus on the ethics and what you believe deep-down. Somewhere in there he relates that to having people like you. It made me realize that the real "prize" was not being liked but having an honest exchange about someone's work, etc., and in a way that doesn't hurt them.

* I realized the other day that by not being more assertive at work, I was really risking letting the organization fail at certain things. I was overwhelmed by a project but saying "uh.... I'll try....." when I should be saying "are you kidding?? Realistically, there's no way I'll be able to finish all that." My failure to be assertive (or just honest and forthright) about my inability to do something / that a project was actually too big could've led us into trouble. In your case, it sounds like letting your assistant screw up is also hurting others or the firm. Doing what it takes to make you as productive as possible and to make others accountable for their own mistakes (so they get better) is not selfish or mean, it's honest and what you really should do for the good of the team.
posted by salvia at 2:42 PM on July 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

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