Assertiveness: how to pick your battles at work

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Monday, 11 March 2013 - Dave Fawbert

Playing a patient and political game rather than succumbing to red mist is the most constructive way to tackle workplace confrontation


There’s always one in every office, and sometimes it happens that they’re your boss. Someone who always thinks they’re right, is uncompromising, often unfair and unreasonable, and tries to dominate the agenda. If you are a person for whom confrontation does not come easily – or, in fact, if the reverse is true and every sentence they utter makes the red mist descend – these people can be incredibly difficult to work with. However, as with many things in life, a long-term strategy and a little political thought can go a long way.

Many people will advise of the importance of being assertive. In the modern world – where, very often, whoever shouts the loudest is heard the most – this can be tempting. But constant confrontation is bad for office atmosphere. And while in your own head, you may be valiantly standing up to a dominant personality, others may perceive you to be just as bad as the initial aggressor. At the same time, meekly giving in to every suggestion or put down will diminish you in the eyes of others, and destroy your own self-esteem.

The key is to focus on the big picture and to pick the right battles to fight.

If you make a fuss at every juncture, impact is lost. But if you stand up for yourself clearly, calmly and with strength on the issues that really matter to you, you will be listened to. Think about your teachers at school: you very quickly learned to filter out the noise of the ones who shouted every lesson. But when the calmer teachers got angry, people stopped and took notice. You can be even subtler than that: when your workplace adversary brings up an innocuous solution that you feel perhaps isn’t the best way for the business, but won’t significantly affect it, lend your support. This may endear that person to look more favourably upon your alternative suggestion on a really crunch issue later down the line. You do not need to win every battle in order to win the war. If, over time, the points you make a stand on prove to be right, you will become the voice that others will naturally listen to.

Battling constantly is not the most effective use of your time and effort and could even lead to a deciding “them or me” ultimatum – a serious gamble. Of course, if your adversary is consistently wrong and overbearing, then other more serious options are always available, which are best handled by HR. In the meantime, you will be surprised how far a little politics and manipulation can get you.

Related story:

Is it ever right to fight in the workplace?

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