CPA INSIDER

How to speak up more at work

Assertiveness can help improve your productivity and career opportunities.
By Hannah Pitstick

No one can hear your idea if you're only thinking it.

Many people are content to stay in a comfortably passive nest in the workplace, rather than assert themselves. But even reserved people have good reason to speak up, for both themselves and the companies they work for.

Not speaking up can be damaging. An organization could get six months and $1 million into a problematic project if no one points out apparent flaws for fear of backlash or hurting someone's feelings.

As Alexis Robin, partner and COO at pLink Leadership, a global leadership consulting firm, points out, everybody brings unique strengths, talents, and insights to the table. Even if you don't think your insights are the best in the room, or even if they're not acted upon, they can still plant the seeds for people to think in new ways, and that is growing the consciousness of the organization.

"If the majority of people are staying quiet, you risk operating based on the loudest voice in the room," Robin said.

It can be difficult to gather the courage to be assertive — especially if you tend to associate your ideas with your self-worth. However, if you can separate yourself from your ideas and focus on the larger goal, it becomes easier to make yourself heard.

Whether your goal is to speak up more in meetings or to talk to your boss about an idea for improvement, here are a few tips for becoming more assertive in the workplace:

  • Discover your conviction. The first step to developing personal courage is discovering a psychological motivation to act against the grain of your personality or cultural upbringing. That can help you to look past that initial moment of discomfort or apprehension toward the goal that makes the effort worthwhile.
  • In his book Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence, Andy Molinsky, Ph.D., professor of international management and organizational behavior at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., writes that getting outside your comfort zone starts with discovering your conviction.

    "Wherever it comes from, whether it's a personal or professional source, it's really important to discover and embrace your 'why' — your source of conviction for why it's worth the effort to step outside your comfort zone and try to be assertive when that might not be your go-to strategy," Molinsky said in an interview.

    It can be hard to stay level-headed and focus on your conviction when you're feeling anxious or scared, but Molinsky pointed out that it's a fallacy to believe you can eliminate anxiety entirely.

    "In fact, there's some degree of anxiety that can be quite functional, to grow, learn, and develop over time," Molinsky said. "I think it's important for us to stretch in certain situations."

  • Be more curious than critical. Some of the most difficult times to exhibit assertiveness and courage are when you're bringing up "undiscussables": sensitive subjects liable to put a person on the defensive. But Robin said that one way to bring up the "undiscussables" is by forming them into questions with a tone of genuine curiosity.
  • For example, Robin coaches a younger manager in a CPA firm who has great ideas, but happens to be shy. She recommended that the younger manager ask her supervisor the question, 'Hey, what is the firm's stance on a, b, c?' and see what her supervisor says. If her supervisor replies, 'Oh, we haven't really thought about that,' Robin suggests the manager respond with, 'I've been thinking about x, y, z, and I wonder how it's going to affect our ability to attain and attract new talent in the future.'

    "This way, the manager is talking about what she's curious about versus advocating a position," Robin said. "Rather than building resistance, you're thinking in collaboration with somebody."

    Ted Leonhardt, a coach for people working in creative industries, such as writers and graphic designers, also recommended approaching a negotiation from a place of genuine curiosity.

    "Asking questions is something I've always been comfortable doing. I found it to be a really helpful technique for me," Leonhardt said.

    When someone is responding to you with thoughtful answers and is interested in your questions, he added, you begin to realize you have value in their eyes. This approach helps increase confidence in making requests or offering opinions.

  • Take advantage of small moments. Often, your first impulse when someone asks you how you're doing will be to respond with a simple 'I'm fine,' and move on. But Robin pointed out that these moments have the potential to convey your worth and establish rapport for future discussions.
  • Rather than give a typical response, she recommended saying something like, "Thanks for asking. I'm doing great because I have finally mastered the new software program that was rolled out," Or, "I'm working through this great new book about how nonconformists move the world. What books do you recommend?"

    The second response has the added benefit of giving you a reason to go back and discuss the recommended book with the person once you've finished it.

    "You can take those 15–30 seconds to share what you're thinking about, working on, or excited about, and it shows the person you're talking to that you're passionate, interested, curious, and intellectual," Robin said.

  • Customize your approach. One thing people often don't realize is that there are multiple ways to step outside your comfort zone, Molinsky said. Often people think there is one way and that way is too intimidating for them, he said, but the reality is there is a range of tactics to try, and that you can tweak a situation and make it work for you.
  • For instance, Molinsky personally struggled with public speaking until he developed a customized strategy that worked for him. One tactic he uses is arriving early to meet people before he gives a talk, so that instead of speaking to a group of strangers, he is also speaking to a few friendly faces.

    "It is really important to know there is no one-size-fits-all version of being assertive or speaking up in a meeting," Molinsky said. "You can find a way to maintain your sense of authenticity and integrity in doing something your way, but still be effective at it."

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director – content development, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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