How to Practice Power
Get your assertiveness on!
A number of years ago when I was working in a large corporate, I received feedback from my manager that I had a “low tolerance for incompetence.” Interestingly, this is was not given as a piece of positive feedback, but rather it was a critique. I know this because the next thing he said was: “you’re too assertive.” Too assertive for what, was my first thought, too assertive for who? Too assertive in comparison to whose standard, and in comparison to what point of reference?
Women who claim their power in the workplace are often criticised for being overly assertive, intimidating and threatening. There’s been a lot written about this, and the general conclusion is that because as women we’re socialised to cooperate, have patience, and be kind, when we then dare to blend kindness with rigour, and when we show impatience to poor performance, it can surprise those around us and manifest in colleagues and managers (who are often male) feeling uncomfortable.
In this example, when my manager told me I was “too assertive”, I had to do all I could to not let my mouth drop open on the table. I thought I was being a high-performing employee and expecting my colleagues to perform similarly. How could that be a bad thing? I started to second-guess myself; was I harnessing my inner power, or was I being overly aggressive and too demanding? As always when I find myself in a self-doubt quandary, I turned to my network of female friends for input.
It shouldn’t have surprised me to hear that many of them had received similar feedback over the course of their careers – from both male and female managers. Women spent decades and generations fighting to claim our power in the workplace, but it seems that even though we have it in principle, it’s not necessarily accepted without question. However, this shouldn’t be reason for us not to keep practicing that power, because the more we act out our empowerment, the more “normal” a strong, feisty woman becomes, and, hopefully, the less we’ll be chastised for that strength.
If you’re wondering what practicing power looks like, here are a few ideas.
1. Stop saying “just”
“I just need a few minutes of your time…”, or “I’m just putting something together quickly.” We all say it, and we shouldn’t. Why? Because it weakens our position. We use “just” to make our requests smaller, and to reduce our achievements. We shouldn’t be minimizing what we need, what we create, and how we behave. We’re not “just” anything. Take “just” out of your vocabulary and say what you actually mean
Whether it’s time to talk about your annual increase, or to which part of the team’s next big project you’ll be assigned, negotiate. It sometimes feels uncomfortable to ask for what we want, because we don’t want to challenge, offend or step on others’ toes, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get. This doesn’t give you license to be difficult, but it does mean you shouldn’t settle for less (money, responsibility, opportunity) than what you’re worth.
3. Play to your strengths
Everyone has an ace up their sleeve, a talent, that one thing that they do better than everyone else. The worst thing you can do with your strengths, is hide them. Seek out spaces, projects and colleagues that will allow and encourage you to show the world what you’re capable of. It’s far easier to claim power from a place of strength, so consider an exercise of your talent as the creation of an enabling environment for your empowerment.
4. Build a network
A strong professional network is a necessary accessory for any empowered women. You need access to senior people who can advance your career through mentorship or by bringing you in to consult on interesting projects. You also need a mobilised network of peers who you can rely on to support you, and who can rely on your support. Spend the time, and make the effort, to cultivate meaningful relationships with seniors, peers and subordinates.
5. Don’t apologise
If you need time from your manager, or you really need that dataset that your colleague has been sitting on for a week, don’t apologise for asking for either. Comments like “I’m so sorry to pester you about this” make it seem like you’re doing something wrong. You’re not. You’re entitled to expect support from a manager, and if someone owes you work, you shouldn’t have to tiptoe around them to get it. Be polite, be firm, be reasonable, but don’t apologise!
It’s not always easy to rewrite decades of learnt behaviour, but if you’re serious about claiming your power at work, it’s worth making the effort to stretch yourself out of your comfort zone and build new, powerful habits. Go out and get your assertiveness on!
Jen is an entrepreneur, an expert in the young talent space, and an all-round enthusiast! Her career has been spent working alongside young people – upskilling them and supporting them to make meaningful career decisions. She’s a writer, a speaker, a disruptor, and a fresh mom.