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The art of being polite yet asserting oneself in the office

Many people at the workplace, especially women, find it hard to speak up for themselves or raise any concerns

While being assertive is helpful for all employees, it's particularly beneficial for women.
While being assertive is helpful for all employees, it's particularly beneficial for women. (iStock photo.)

I struggle to say no to my boss if he asks me to stay beyond my work hours. As a caregiver to my ailing mother, I have multiple responsibilities at home but I simply can’t get myself to speak up at work,” says a 31-year-old Mumbai-based marketing professional, who prefers to stay anonymous.

Whether it’s a desire to fit in at work, or a fear of rejection from the senior leadership for exercising boundaries, it all boils down to seeking acceptance, albeit with discomfort.

A 42-year-old event manager from Delhi is at loggerheads with her conscience. As the sole breadwinner in her family, she does not want to lose her job if she expresses displeasure at being underpaid for a demanding role. In the absence of her inability to be assertive, she resorts to flattering her superiors to keep them happy.

“I have always been efficient in my role and yet I haven’t received a pay raise in the last five years,” she says. “My inner voice constantly pushes me to stand up for myself, but I haven’t gathered the courage to confront my superiors.”

This is the case with many people, especially women, at the workplace. They find it harder to raise their concerns, demand a hike or express their opinion to the senior leadership.

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“It is often a consequence of deep-seated insecurities of failure or experiencing impostor syndrome, where women do not perceive themselves as successful even if they are performing well at work,” says Ananya Puri, an independent career coach.

According to a study conducted by the Gender Action Portal at the Harvard Kennedy School, “women may be discouraged by social cues that signal assertiveness and do not align with female gender roles.”

“As a young girl, I was always expected to obey my parents. If I ever argued, I was shut down and grounded for days. How can I suddenly turn assertive in the workplace?” asks a 37-year-old sports management professional based in Kolkata.

Even if women find the courage to be assertive, they face backlash if they are unable to “display both warmth and competence in the boardroom”, as highlighted by the Managing The Double Bind: Women Directors’ Participation Tactics in The Gendered Boardroom published in the journal Organization Science.

By definition, being assertive means being able to stand up for yourself and communicate your needs and boundaries in a coherent manner, without disrespecting another individual.

While being assertive is helpful for all employees, it is particularly beneficial for women as revealed by a new study published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. In fact, exhibiting this behaviour ensures better compensation for women than their less assertive counterparts.

However, it is important to maintain assertiveness with a tinge of niceness, suggests Ruchi Ruuh, a Delhi-based counselling psychologist.

“Without this balance, niceness can come across as flattery or people-pleasing behaviour. Assertiveness can sometimes also appear as overconfidence. A mix of the two personality traits can help maintain a respectful, positive collaboration between co-workers,” she says.

While most people consider niceness and assertiveness to be very different, they are inherently two sides of the same coin, believes Ruuh. “People find it hard to accept they could be both, and still be valued and liked in the workplace. An individual who considers niceness to be a grander virtue than assertiveness may find it hard to step out of their comfort zone and establish boundaries,” she points out.

Often, human resource (HR) professionals come under the scanner for being overly nice and unassertive. Although they are responsible for crucial roles like talent management, employee benefits, compensation, and more, their job is often relegated to the sidelines with most employees in a workplace taking them ‘lightly’.

As the role of HRs takes centre stage in business, it is critical for them to strike a balance between empathy and accountability, remarks Tanima Dhawan, the national HR director at Zoo Media, an independent agency network.

Like others, Dhawan has encountered several situations where her mind and heart were at conflict. During such times, she leaned on the power of listening, which she considers a persuasive tool that HR professionals must leverage. “Sometimes, it’s not what you say but when and how you say it. Being a good listener enables you to read the sentiment of a room and decide what your ideal yet convincing communication must be like,” she advises.

Too much niceness without an assertive feedback can lead to mediocrity, says Ruuh. “Workplaces thrive on constructive feedback by peers and superiors. If feedback is being held back because being nice takes precedence, teams will not course correct and performance may decline,” she says.

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Dhawan has a different view. She lauds the change in work culture during the pandemic that has led to the emergence of a new will amongst the workforce, something that was unimaginable previously. “Today’s workforce is more agile and proactive but also one that feels comfortable speaking up before the senior management, if required. In my opinion, that’s a progressive advancement towards building an open and participative culture that inspires, motivates and empowers individuals,” she adds.

Geetika Sachdev is a writer and journalist.



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