Say it out loud: Communicating for Success in the Workplace

Part 1 of a 4 Part Blog Series on Assertive Communication

Jillian just received a poor performance appraisal from her boss. This is the first time she has received any negative feedback.  In fact, her boss was just singing her praises last week to the team.

Juan, a director in his company, is at a business dinner with a VP from another department who has ordered several bottles of expensive wine. The VP asks Juan to expense the meal, even though the company policy states the VP should pay.

Jake’s direct report, Gertrude, asks for a LinkedIn recommendation. Gertrude’s work has been less than stellar, and she has only been on his team for six months. Despite this, Jake really likes Gertrude and doesn’t want to risk hurting her feelings, and he can’t afford to lose a team member at this time of year.

Juniper’s coworker complains to her about their mutual boss, her dislike of upper management, and the decisions they make. Juniper finds that this is starting to affect her morale.

Jenny has been passed up for a promotion for a second time, when she knows she is qualified for the job.

What is assertive communication and why is it important?

All of the examples above require assertiveness. With assertive communication, you must communicate your needs while acknowledging and respecting the needs and requests of people around you, without necessarily fulfilling those requests. Specifically, when it comes to your relationship with others, assertive communication is about getting what you need without bulldozing over others or neglecting their needs altogether. Effective communicators can address the needs of their colleagues and the organization while building up credibility and respect in the eyes of the community. 

Assertive communication will also lead to greater happiness and fulfillment in your relationships and job.  Effective communication helps you build your confidence, create honesty and trust, and reduce stress.  Assertiveness also helps you recognize your feelings, improve communication, and earn the respect of others. Finally, intentional and assertive behavior will establish proper boundaries in your workplace.

In the Workplace

In the workplace, whether we are making widgets or saving babies, everyone plays a role in establishing the success of the organization. Often, the things that most affect our morale and interfere with our productivity are interpersonal challenges, like Juniper’s situation, where her coworker has impacted her morale by constantly complaining.  Letting Juniper know that her negative attitude is making it more difficult for you to concentrate on your own work might improve your situation greatly, but how should you approach her?  It’s not easy. No one is born an effective communicator. Effective communication skills are learned, and people who are good at it usually work really hard to develop that skill.

The Four Types of Communication

Effective communication skills are learned, and people who are good at it usually work really hard to develop that skill.

Let's focus on four types of communication: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive. There are scenarios in each communication style everyone can relate to.  As you read the descriptions, try to think of examples of communication styles in your life that you use.  Usually, there is one style that is more dominant for you than the others, and you can see clear advantages to using that method. You are in control of your communication style. The way you communicate sends a powerful message to the world about who you are, and reinforces how you already think about yourself. That is why effective and clear communication not only make you feel better about yourself, it can also positively affect the way your colleagues view you.

Passivity:

People that overuse passive styles of communication often feel helpless or like they are losing control of their lives. They often have deep seeded beliefs that they are somehow less important, less educated, less informed, and have less to offer than other people around them. They often avoid conflict and fear criticism.  When faced with a dilemma or conflict of some kind, they will likely remain silent. People who communicate passively tend to be "people-pleasers".

Passivity in action:

  • Giving into unreasonable demands
  • Going along with the majority, even when you disagree or it’s not good for you  
  • Not offering your opinion, even when asked directly
  • Letting others take credit for your work
  • Accepting blame for others’ sub-optimal work
  • Fulfilling every request your colleagues make without reciprocation.  For example, you have covered weekend shifts for every single one of your coworkers over the past year and you realize that none have done the same for you.

When these things happen, it reinforces the following beliefs that you may have about yourself: My voice doesn’t matter. What value do I really add? They know better then me. What do I know? I’m a fraud and don’t belong here to begin with.

Aggressive

Aggressive styles are driven by fear. People who use this style of communication fear the loss of control and the appearance of weakness. They frequently act on an impulse. Often they are driven by a deeply rooted insecurity that they are not capable of influence through more strategic methods. As a result, they use their power or privilege to intimidate others into meeting their needs.  

The aggressive style has a limited shelf life, because it drives people away and breaks the bond of trust. People are motivated by mutuality and connection, not fear.  

 Aggressive communication in action:

  • Exerting control over others through threats, raising of the voice, or intimidating physical position of the body.
  • Abusing power to get their way, such as a manager making an employee feel guilty for taking a well-deserved vacation.
  • Projecting unreasonable demands while offering little flexibility. For example, they may set impossibly high standards and display a lack of regard about setting reasonable timetables to complete projects.
  • Poor listening skills, talks over others.
  • Intimidates and bullies through off color humor or inappropriate jokes. Click here for a great article for how to deal with workplace bullies.

People who overuse aggressive styles often lack self-awareness. They don’t see that they have alienated the people around them. This lack of awareness can sometimes reinforce their aggressive behavior.  Often people who overuse this style have reaped rewards by using this style in the past. They also tend to hold positions of authority. Aggression in some workplaces, unfortunately, is often mistaken for confidence, when in reality the behavior often masks a lack of competence.  

 Passive-Aggressive

 Passive-aggressive styles come into play when you do not give into pressure of demands (passive), yet do not vocalize what you think or want directly.  It is a form of passive resistance and protest. It manifests itself in destructive ways, due to the bitter resentment that builds up over time.

Passive-aggressive communication in action:

  • Saying yes, but not following through or completing sloppy work
  • Making excuses and sometimes lies for not following through, often last minute
  • Water cooler gossip
  • Use of non-verbal body language such as eye rolling
  • Use of sarcasm (…. You don’t know that? Didn’t you say you had an MBA? Just curious…”)
  • Inaction. Not taking action when it would be expected, then claiming ignorance to the detriment of a colleague, subordinate, or supervisor. (“How was I suppose to know what was expected of me when no one taught me how to do it completely”, shoulders shrugged).

When using this style of communication, you might have wanted to say no, but found it difficult to do so or felt too guilty to say something. Behaving in a passive-aggressive manner allows you to deny responsibility and avoid accountability.

Assertiveness

Assertive communication involves taking control when appropriate, and communicating clearly and effectively to set colleagues’ expectations. It’s not about letting others control you (passive), controlling others (aggressive), or manipulating or misleading others (Passive-aggressive).  Assertiveness is about letting others have control over their own behavior. They are in charge of their behavior and you are not attempting to usurp that control. By using assertive communication, you are merely setting boundaries, and influencing the extent their actions may have an effect on you.

Assertiveness in action:

  • Expressing a point of view honestly and allows others room to share their own
  • Listening to other people’s ideas
  • Recognizing peoples triggers and feelings in an interaction (i.e when raising a controversial subject, check the pulse of others- how are people reacting?) 
  • Stopping and thinking before acting or reacting
  • Asking for feedback
  • Leaving room to say “no”
  • Making requests instead of demands

 What are the first steps to becoming more assertive?

Build awareness

Which of the above communication styles resonated the most with you as you read the examples? Using the styles other than assertive, do not make you a bad person. They key is to become aware of it and to make efforts to build your assertiveness skills. In which situations in your life do you tend to use the various communication styles? Ask yourself, where do I sit on the assertive scale (1-10) in my professional life or workplace?  

Keep an assertiveness scorecard

When you have an especially difficult conversation or encounter that leaves you feeling guilty, resentful, weak, or angry, journal the interaction. Try using the following format: Write down 1) the situation, 2) your response, 3) indicate what type of communication style was used, 4) how it turned out, 5) your feelings afterwards, and finally, 6) an alternative response. The worksheet below is a great template and can be downloaded here

Understand the role of stress

Stress prevents us from responding rationally because it causes us to assume the biologically pre-programmed fight or flight stance. We are more likely to react emotionally and respond, or fail to respond, without stopping to think first.

  • Self-care is important to reducing stress, and there are many ways to take better care of yourself.  Here are some ideas to get you started.
  • Another method of stress management is to analyze the stress in your life. Is your stress worth it? Is your daily stress just a pile up of situations you blew out of proportion throughout the day?  Examine your thoughts.   Your perceptions of a situation are just that; perceptions, not reality. We often operate on assumptions based on what automatically pops into our mind about a situation.

Here's an example:

Situation: It’s been an entire 24 hours and my boss hasn’t responded to my request for a two-week vacation in July.

Automatic (unhelpful) thought: She doesn’t think I work hard enough to deserve a two-week vacation. She doesn’t read my emails because she doesn’t think I’m important enough.

Helpful thought (and probably the truth): She’s busy or she didn’t see my email. I’ll follow up in a day or two if I don’t hear back.

When you find yourself responding to a situation based on an automatic thought, write it down along with a helpful thought about how you might have addressed the situation differently. Write it down in your phone notes, calendar, journal, or even put it in an email and send it to yourself.

As we summarize this post, you might be curious how did Jillian, Jake, Juan, Juniper and Jack resolve their workplace dilemmas?  Stay tuned next week for part two of this four-part series on assertive communication and all will be revealed! 

Kerrie Thompson, LCSW is a psychotherapist and organizational consultant in private practice in NYC. To schedule a complimentary phone consultation, please click here.