Be More Assertive at Work

Assertiveness is about the behaviors of communicating confidently and assuredly. Women who communicate assertively can explicitly state their thoughts and feelings when necessary to ask for what they want.

In the workplace, this might also include sharing your good ideas with others. If we communicate assertively at work, we are much more likely to be taken seriously and be respected. Others will take our thoughts and opinions into consideration more often.

When we are assertive we:

  • are more effective in work relationships
  • have higher self-esteem
  • have more self-confidence
  • are less likely to be depressed
  • are less likely to be anxious 
  • are less likely to be stressed 
  • are more likely to be trusted

How to Be More Assertive at Work : Understanding Discrimination

These all sound like great things. So why aren’t women more assertive at work?

One genuine truth is that women face discrimination. If their assertive behavior tips into what is perceived as too much forcefulness, they can be labeled as aggressive, and they are then less liked. This is not the case with men! Men are rewarded for the same behavior. Women can suffer consequences such as less opportunity for promotion and less opportunity for salary increases.

What a terrible situation. We need women to be more assertive at work in order to be more successful and effective, but when they are, they may suffer consequences that hurt them! The discrimination is real.

An assertiveness tip to be more assertive at work 

Below is a workaround that helps with this issue. Women can use and practice these three phrases to help with the perception that they are too aggressive in the workplace. This is unfair and ridiculous, but effective.

Use behavior, value and inoculation phrases when giving feedback that may be perceived as too aggressive or confrontational. 

Examples are below. 

  • “I’m going to express my opinion very directly; I’ll be as clear as possible.” (behavior phrase)
  • “I see this as a matter of transparency , so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.” (value phrase)
  • “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this directly , but I’m going to express my opinion very assertively because it’s necessary here” (inoculation phrase)

How to Be more Assertive at Work: Understanding Socialization.

Another reason women can’t be more assertive at work is that we are discouraged from being assertive in general. Most women are not socialized to be assertive. From an early age, girls are told not to be bossy, to please others, and to backseat our ideas because others are more important. Consider these issues and their role in your life. Be compassionate about your struggles with assertiveness. They are the reality in the life of many women.


Be more Assertive at work: Individual reasons.

False Beliefs and Thoughts

Often women aren’t assertive because they have false beliefs that translate into wrong thoughts. Sometimes these beliefs have to do with what assertiveness is.

Research shows that women believe being assertive is related to uncaring behavior. I often hear my clients say ” I don’t want to be mean ” when we have discussions about being assertive at work.

Ironically, often women who aren’t assertive wind up eventually being mean when resentment builds up. They lose their temper after holding in anger and unhappiness for so long. 

Women may also believe they haven’t the right to express their thoughts or ideas. They may be fearful that their views are stupid. Many years of being unassertive and avoidant have become an established pattern. Behaving differently is something that is scary and seems impossible to do.

It is essential to be sensitive to the particular circumstances that make it difficult for you to be assertive as a woman. Do you have a toxic workplace that discourages female assertiveness? Is racism and white supremacy also part of the question for you? Do you have childhood or family issues that contribute? Or is there a history of abuse that factors into how you learned to communicate to survive? All of these issues may make it harder for you to adopt new and assertive communication skills. Depending on these issues, you may want to enlist in the help of a therapist.

How to Be More Assertive at Work: The Assertive Bill of Rights

Part of what I hear prevents my clients when trying to be more assertive at work is what they say to themselves about the situations that arise at work. Often what they are saying to themselves originates in beliefs they have about themselves and their circumstances.

I have had a handout that highlights what mistaken beliefs you may have learned as a child and carried into adulthood. 

Below is the handout verbatim. These are not my ideas but are so relevant, and I have shared them with my clients repeatedly over the years. 

Traditional Assumptions versus Legitimate rights Handout ( Michelle Davis 1995)

You did not have as much choice about which traditional assumptions you were taught as a child. Now, however, you have the option of deciding whether to continue behaving according to assumptions that keep you from being an assertive adult.

Each of these mistaken assumptions
 violates one of your legitimate rights as an adult:

  • It is selfish to put your needs before others’ needs.
  • It is shameful to make mistakes. You should have an appropriate response for every occasion.
  • If you can’t convince others that your feelings are reasonable, then they must be wrong, or maybe you are going crazy.
  • You should respect the views of others, especially if they are in a position of authority. Keep your differences of opinion to yourself. Listen and learn
  • You should always try to be logical and consistent.
  • You should be flexible and adjust. Others have good reasons for their actions and it’s not polite to question them.
  • You should never interrupt people. Asking questions reveals your stupidity to others.
  • Don’t rock the boat.
  • You shouldn’t take up others’ valuable time with your problems.
  • People don’t want to hear that you feel bad, so keep it to yourself.
  • When someone takes the time to give you advice, you should take it very seriously. They are often right.
  • Knowing that you did something well is its own reward. People don’t like show-offs. Successful people are secretly disliked and envied. Be modest when complimented.
  • You should always try to accommodate others. If you don’t, they won’t be there when you need them.
  • Don’t be anti-social. People are going to think you don’t like them if you say you’d rather be alone instead of with them.
  • You should always have a good reason for what you feel and do.
  • When someone is in trouble, you should help them.
  • You should be sensitive to the needs and wishes of others, even when they are unable to tell you what they want.
  • It’s not nice to put people off. If questioned, give an answer.


Your Legitimate Rights

  • You have the right to put yourself first sometimes.
  • You have the right to make mistakes.
  • You have the right to be the final judge of your feelings and accept them as legitimate.
  • You have the right to have your own opinions and convictions.
  • You have the right to change your mind or decide on a different course of action.
  • You have a right to protest unfair treatment or criticism.
  • You have a right to interrupt in order to ask for clarification.
  • You have a right to negotiate for change.
  • You have a right to ask for help or emotional support.
  • You have a right to feel and express pain.
  • You have a right to ignore the advice of others.
  • You have a right to receive formal recognition for your work and achievements.
  • You have a right to say “no.”
  • You have a right to be alone, even if others would prefer your company.
  • You have a right not to have to justify yourself to others.
  • You have a right not to take responsibility for someone else’s problem.
  • You have a right not to have to anticipate others’ needs and wishes.
  • You have a right not to always worry about the goodwill of others.
  • You have a right to choose not to respond to a situation.

If you’re like most people, your behavior reflects some mistaken traditional assumptions. 

The more that you can start living your legitimate rights, the more likely it is that you will allow yourself to make important changes in your life that will affect every other area of your life.

 You will value yourself more and become a better person in the process. 

(Davis, 1995)

How to Be More Assertive at work: Understanding Beliefs, Self Talk, Behavior


Do you recognize any false beliefs in the handout above? How do you think these beliefs might influence what you say to yourself?

Below are some examples of how beliefs and self-talk are related. 

If you don’t believe that you have the right to say no, what might you say to yourself in a situation where someone is asking you to do something you dont want to do or don’t have the time to do?

How might that impact your work performance or your relationship with that person?

  • In the moment, rather than telling yourself it’s okay to say no, you may tell yourself it’s rude or you will be perceived as a person that is not a team player.  
  • When someone asks you to take on too much, you aren’t going to tell them that it’s too much. 
  • Eventually, this will lead to resentment and overwhelm. 

If you don’t believe you have the right to protest unfair treatment or criticism, what will happen if someone mistreats you? 

  • What will you say to yourself about the situation?
  • How will you solve this problem?
  • This false belief will open you up to a host of issues in the workplace where bullies may target you, and people can take advantage of you. 
  • Your self-talk or dialogue may consist of a powerless victim mentality instead of one where you are self-compassioned and able to manage the emotions you feel and handle the situation well.

If you believe that you cannot make mistakes, what kind of behavior and self-talk will this lead to when you make a mistake? 

Your self-talk will not be one of self-compassion

You may try to hide your mistakes

You may be overly defensive

Body Language and Voice Tone

Body language and voice tone are crucial to assertiveness skills at work. When you have recognized how your beliefs have held you back, you can adopt this on the outside.

If you believe that your ideas are valid, this will translate into a tone of voice and posture that is calm, relaxed, and confident.


If you believe that you have no right to this, you will stammer hesitate and fail to make eye contact. 

People who are assertive behave towards others pleasantly and calmly. They listen respectfully to others with curiosity and calmly explain their thoughts, ideas and needs.

It is important to remember that assertiveness is much more likely to achieve results. People are more likely to like you. It produces increased confidence and builds better relationships.


References for how to be more assertive at work

Eng, Davis, M., Eshelman, E. R., & McKay, M. (1995). The relaxation & stress reduction workbook . Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Emotional Inequality: Skills to Minimize Social Backlash David Maxfield, Joseph Grenny & Chase McMillan

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