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Being Assertive in the Workplace

As a working woman have you ever been labelled aggressive when you were trying to be assertive? Perhaps you were not able to stand up for yourself while someone else took credit for your work? Or have you been accused of being overly-ambitious when you’re just trying to get ahead?

The past several decades have seen many global changes to the workforce and the modern business environment.  In South Africa, women now comprise about 39% of the workforce and occupy about 11 % of top managerial positions.

“There’s still a long way to go before we break through the glass ceiling,” says Robyn Farrell, managing director of 1st for Women Insurance Brokers, “but there are ways to increase your chances of success in your career.”

Increasing workplace skills

It’s been proved that assertive women are more successful at accumulating resources and more likely to bring about positive change.  They manage to overcome adversity and emerge with greater strength than before. “Many people tend to think that business success is about being rational and logical - mostly seen as being male attributes,” explains Farrell, adding, “ but actually the human element is critically important - one of the major soft skills you can develop is assertiveness.”

What exactly is assertiveness? It’s being able to express your thoughts, beliefs and feelings in a confident, open and honest way. It increases self-confidence and facilitates the communication of ideas at work. Being assertive isn’t just a matter of survival in the workplace, but an indirect and very powerful tool to increase productivity and efficiency.

“Learning to be assertive is essential when standing up for yourself in certain situations like putdowns and asking for a raise. It’s a skill that is not only crucial for the workplace, but for our personal life as well,” affirms Farrell.

Assertiveness vs Aggressivenes

“Being assertive can be difficult especially for women, even in these modern times. Many women have been taught to be agreeable, passive, and polite, to avoid conflict and to make those around them feel at ease - even submissive.  But, this isn’t the way to achieve any of your goals,” says Farrell

Assertive individuals communicate confidently, use constructive feedback, try to understand others and acknowledge the value others bring. They are able to be sensitive to others while still standing up for their own rights. “It’s about aiming for a win-win solution without allowing yourself to be pushed around,” adds Farrell.

The six main characteristics of assertive communication are eye contact, non-intimidating body posture, appropriate gestures, a well-modulated voice and good timing which will all maximise the impact of your message.  How, when and where you choose to comment is probably even more important than what you say.

An assertive woman deals with a stressful situation seeking resolution using direct, appropriate and honest forms of communication. She is open, polite, has good self-esteem, and seeks to build other’s self-esteem. As a boss, she leads by example, but never seeks, nor avoids confrontation. She is flexible, well respected and asks for what she needs. Farrell says, “Occasionally assertiveness can seem hostile, but when it does that hostility is usually warranted. But remember that to people who still think that women are not equals, any woman who asserts her rights might be seen as aggressive.”

On the other hand, aggressive people stand up for themselves at the expense of others responding with anger, sarcasm, loudness, forcefulness, hostility and humiliation.

An aggressive woman may be self-centered and have low self-esteem that she boosts by putting others down. She becomes stressed and makes those around her stressed too.

She is often abrasive and forces others to accept that she is right.  As a boss, she forces her ideas on others, has to be in control and will belittle those who disagree. She sticks rigidly to the rules, is insensitive to other’s needs and is resented and feared rather than respected. She demands rather than asks.

The Future

People are the essence of business; whether they are managers or employees—and being an effective communicator is essential to success. Communicating assertively can mean the difference between closing a deal and losing it. It can also mean the difference between effectively leading a team or causing it to fail. Studies indicate that women are more likely than men to possess the leadership qualities associated with success. They are better listeners and stimulate others to think "outside the box," making them more inspirational.

“According to predictions, in the future, women leaders will dominate because they are better suited to 21st century leadership/management than men,” affirms Farrell. Having good people skills allows women to build strong relationships with others and enhance her career.

Developing these skills will ensure that others trust, respect and admire you in the workplace.

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