Why Assertiveness is a Challenge for So Many Professionals

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Assertiveness doesn’t come naturally to a lot of us. It can often bring about an uncomfortable feeling that we’re rocking the boat or disrupting the status quo.

So many of us are inclined to try to “fit in”, whether that’s within our families, with colleagues or friends.

Nevertheless, assertiveness is an important skill to master if we want to be seen and heard at work.

The problem is few of us find being assertive easy and instead choose to stay quiet.  

So, why exactly do so many professionals find it difficult to be assertive in the workplace? 

Assertiveness Isn’t Taught in School

As children, we’re often criticized for being “bossy,” and rewarded for being quiet and waiting to speak until we’re told to.

We’re also rarely given the opportunity to take a leadership role and are instead required to work harmoniously as a team.

While teamwork is equally important in the workplace, we need some assertiveness to ensure we’re heard within the team and can speak up when we feel that things are going in a negative direction.

As children, we’re taught not to do this. Children are taught not to challenge their teachers or other authority figures.

While this may help teachers keep children and teenagers under control, it does not prepare us to stand up for ourselves and what we believe in at work.

And it deters us from speaking up to bosses or striving for raises and other benefits we feel we deserve.  

It’s Not Encouraged in the Workplace

No matter how you put it, employees are expected to follow directions. The incentive structures of most companies (even the most progressive corporations) do not encourage assertiveness.

They encourage loyalty and, to a large degree, obedience.

So this naturally deters employees from taking the risk that comes with being assertive, because essentially someone has the power to discontinue their only source of income. 

Some workplaces are getting better about encouraging freedom of speech at all levels, but the natural hierarchy will continue to prevent employees lower on the ladder from sharing their thoughts.

The Challenges of Working Alongside Others

Unfortunately, assertiveness can be wrongly portrayed or can be taken as insolence and aggression. This may be because it is not expected and can take people by surprise.

Keeping a seemingly “peaceful” working relationship with a difficult boss or colleague is much easier than challenging or questioning them.

As with our early years, this submissive behavior is generally learned early in the working relationship. From there, it feeds on itself and reinforces the patterns with other colleagues, thus creating a culture of agreeable obedience.

There will continue to be assertiveness challenges everywhere in the workforce until the structural nature of modern corporate work and the educational system changes.

People will have to work to optimize their effectiveness within these systems to the extent they can.

Justin Aquino