How to Be Assertive at Work without Being a Jerk

Whether you’re a newly promoted boss, a project leader for the first time or just want to stand up for yourself with your own coworkers and boss—being assertive on the job can be tricky. You don’t want to find yourself in the next book about jerks in the workplace, but you don’t want to become the office doormat that everyone walks on from 8 to 5 either. There’s a fine line between standing up and being stomped. Here’s how to walk that line.

Get it in writing early and often.

If you’re the team lead on a project, lay out your expectations early and in writing. Don’t hover or micromanage, but don’t assume that everyone else has the same work ethic you do. There are people who will agree to perform a task and then forget all about it (ask me how I know). To avoid delays based on someone not hitting their deadline, check back in with your team before significant project milestones.

Tune up.

On the other hand, be in tune with your team members. If there’s one worker who meets milestones every single time, talk to her. Ask her if she’d prefer you not check in so often. Give her some lead and a chance to shine and earn your trust.

Don’t play the blame and shame game—especially not in public.


When something goes wrong, don’t embarrass your team members. Instead of calling a meeting to blame or shame the offending person or persons who made the error, come at the situation from a place of making the process better as opposed to calling out a mistake. Start your meeting off saying “I have a way we can improve how we do things.” If you do need to correct a specific person, do it privately and end the one-on-one session on a positive note.

Give credit publicly.

When a coworker or someone who works for you excels, send praise both up and sideways. Let upper management know and sing her praises to your fellow workers too.

When you do call a meeting, make the point.

Once. Then stop talking, says Meredith Fuller, author of Working with Bitches (you don’t want to land in her next book either). When you’re in charge, the team members are your puppies, and you’re the pack leader, Fuller says. “They need to get that message,” she says. “State your point or expectation in a low growl, once. Don’t keep pleading. But don’t remind them about other times they let you down or complain about how tired you are of spoon-feeding them. You might be thinking it, but don’t go there.” At least, not out loud.

Focus on the other person.

When you have to set boundaries, set them in ways that show consideration for the other person—even if you’re really meeting your own needs. Suppose you’re trying to schedule a phone meeting at a specific time to discuss critical issues. Instead of agreeing to a set time, the person responds, “I’ll call you.” Your Inner Jerk wants to say, “I can’t keep all day every day free in case you decide to pick up the phone. You need to respect me and my time.” Instead, call on your Wisely Assertive Muse and say, “I don’t want to waste your time by being tied up on another call or a meeting when you call. Please give me a certain time and then we’ll both be prepared. What time works for you?”

Bless instead of curse.

Your coworker just took credit in a meeting for work you did. Your Inner Jerk has a profanity on the tip of her tongue: “That was my %#@^ing idea—not yours.” Silence your Inner Jerk and give your Wisely Assertive Muse room to say, “John, I’m so glad and flattered that you like my idea.” Then elaborate on how that idea will benefit the company and close with a reminder that you came up with the plan.

Keep it simple.

You’re asked to do something you feel is unethical—but you realize it’s a gray area and your boss or coworker may have a legitimate reason for being OK with the task. Since it’s a gray area, leave your ethical high horse in the stable and just say, “I’m not comfortable doing that.” Don’t make excuses, explain or accuse anyone else of wrongdoing. People can argue or criticize your excuses or explanations. They can get defensive if they think they’re accused of being wrong. But they can’t argue when you say you’re not comfortable.

Now that you’ve earned your team’s respect, congratulations. Sometimes a task is urgent—the equivalent of a parent and child standing on the street corner and the child trying to dart into oncoming traffic. The parent has to roughly yank the child back to save his life. At work, you may know information the others aren’t privy to, Fuller says. You need your team to move quickly to get results. There’s no time to explain to your most methodical team members why this task is urgent and why they need to move now. The team and maybe the company are at stake. So you let out your Inner Jerk and get the job done. Once the crisis has passed, be sure to thank your team for their good work.

Oh, pizza would be great too. 

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