Many of us have people-pleasing tendencies that tend to come out strongest in our jobs. If you’re someone who takes on more than they can handle, shows up to work even if you don’t feel well, or avoids raising legitimate concerns or asking for help when you need it, you might be a people pleaser.
There’s even a new word for this behaviour in the workplace – pleasanteeism – when you feel pressure to present as the most positive, least demanding version of yourself, regardless of how you’re feeling on the inside.
So, how can you be more assertive in the workplace, whether that’s asking for what you need – more support, a pay rise, career development – or saying no to the things you simply don’t have capacity to take on.
Career coach and strategist Joanna Blazinska thinks people struggle to be assertive at work as it can be misconstrued as rudeness. “Assertiveness is often associated with confrontation and arguments, for whatever reason,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Saying ‘no’ is considered rude by some people, although there are constructive ways to say it. People also avoid things such as asking for a promotion because they don’t want to be seen as difficult.”
You probably think you’re doing everyone else a favour by avoiding certain conversations but, in reality, you’re making your life and other people’s harder. Dodging confrontation at work can lead to you doing more work, less well, and getting burnt out as a result.
Why is it easier to people-please than be assertive?
If being assertive is so important, why do people resort to people-pleasing instead? Blazinska believes that people think being assertive comes with negative consequences. “They expect damage to their relationships and personal brand. People think they won’t be respected,” she says.
There’s an additional level at play: we often attach a lot of self-worth to our work. “People pleasers depend on pleasing others. They want to seem reliable, helpful and super competent, with the hope their work will be highly regarded and rewarded in the future.”
Blazinska says the following behaviours are classic people-pleasing habits.
Taking on a task with a short-term deadline when you know you already have a queue of tasks that will not be completed without a major sacrifice.
Taking on too many projects/assignments when you know it will affect your work-life balance, or the quality of work you need to deliver.
Not speaking up when you’ve got too much on your plate.
Not questioning current ways of working even if it causes a lot of extra work and could be improved.
So, how can you be more assertive in your job?
“Not being assertive does not mean you’re inflexible,” Blazinska reminds us. “You still help out. But you may simply have boundaries and even some non-negotiables. Or simply you might be busy with an important task at hand,”
Here are five steps to help you in your journey to becoming more assertive.
The first step is to reframe your understanding of assertiveness. “It does not mean a full-on conflict. It is just a negotiation. It’s for the benefit of everyone, not to the detriment of. You can be assertive, but also stay polite and humble,” she says. Focus on the value you want to bring to the company, she adds. If you aren’t assertive, your work might become low quality. “You’ll be exhausted, tired, unhappy, and not a pleasure to work with.”
Work on your communication
“Communicate in a positive and constructive way,” she says. “Pay attention to how you deliver your point. Saying no does not mean you have to sound rude in any conversation. There is a difference (and a fine line) between setting a boundary and being unhelpful and unempathetic when your team is in need.”
Talk through your priorities
Your manager is there to help you balance your workload so that what you work on helps the company or organisation achieve its goals. So talk to them more.
“This will show you can see the team and an organisation holistically,” says Blazinska. “Understand what needs to be done to make the biggest impact possible. Then focus on the assignment which will deliver exactly that while being assertive about not taking on more.”
Find a role model
This can be someone who you admire and who is as assertive as you’d like to be. “Ask them how they think about assertiveness and how they do it,” Blazinska. Then practise: ease into it so you can find a way to be assertive that suits you and feels authentic to your personality.”
Find the right balance
The aim is to be supportive and helpful, while staying productive. “Remain a team player. But also be realistic about how much you take on,” she says. “Track your own productivity, optimise your performance and take note of consequences when you take on too much. Understand how you can bring the max value to your team and organisation you work for.’
Lastly, if you’re a people pleaser, it’s worth trying to understand the root cause of your behaviour. People-pleasing can easily affect different areas of your life. Understand your own priorities and work to put your own wellbeing first. It will only benefit your relationships with others.