Some workers are naturally more assertive than others. But there’s a pretty wide gap between being assertive and being a total pushover, and if you land on the wrong end of that spectrum, you might end up not only setting back your career, but making yourself unhappy on the job.
Of course, it’s easy to see how someone who’s naturally timid might quickly reach pushover status. Maybe you have a demanding, aggressive boss you’re eager to please. Or maybe you simply find it easier to agree to things than to argue against them.
The problem, of course, is that if you don’t change your ways, you’ll not only risk getting completely taken advantage of, but quite possibly burn out when others realize they can unload on you regularly. To avoid that fate, here are a few important steps to take.
1. Learn to say no the right way
At the core of not being a pushover is mastering the art of respectfully but firmly saying no. Now one misconception is that you need to qualify each “no” you utter with a drawn-out, elaborate excuse. You don’t. Rather, you just need to be matter-of-fact and secure in your responses.
Here’s an example. Imagine your manager asks you to work on a Saturday to help your team meet a deadline. Your first inclination might be to either say yes, or attempt to get out of that request by saying no but offering an intricate story to go along with it. But rather than start telling some tale of your long-lost cousin coming to town while your cat simultaneously needs his claws professionally filed down by the one groomer in town authorized to deal with that breed, save yourself the trouble and just say something like “No, coming in this Saturday won’t work for me since I have previous obligations that day.”
Keeping your answers short and sweet often sends a louder message than feeling the need to justify them. And chances are, once your boss is caught off-guard by a “no” or two, he or she will get the point and stop attempting to take advantage.
2. Stop saying you’re sorry
If you have pushover tendencies, the words “no” and “I’m sorry” tend to go hand in hand. So eliminate the latter from your on-the-job vocabulary. The next time someone asks for something unreasonable, don’t apologize for not being able to accommodate. Rather, couple your no with a short but effective explanation, and leave it at that.
For example, if a colleague asks you to jump in on a project during a week when you’re utterly swamped, you may be inclined to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m really busy this week and don’t think I have the time.” But when you say it that way, the person asking might continue to push. On the other hand, if you eliminate the apology and firmly say, “I’m too busy this week and don’t have the time,” he or she is more likely to back off.
3. Offer alternatives before saying yes or no
The problem with saying no at work too often is that you could come off as uncooperative or inflexible, neither of which will work wonders for your career. Therefore, while you don’t want to be a pushover, you also don’t want to inadvertently go to the opposite extreme, either. A good compromise? Get creative and aim to come up with solutions that help solve company problems without you having to suffer.
For instance, say your boss asks you to work late one night on a last-minute presentation, and it’s not something you want to do (nor is it really your responsibility per se). Rather than say yes or no, try saying “I’d like to help but can’t stay past 6. I’ll drop what I’m doing now to compile some slides and will pick back up first thing in the morning.” This way, rather than saying yes and ruining your night, or saying no and angering your boss, you’re offering up an alternate solution that just might work. Even if it doesn’t, you’re still being respectful and helpful enough that your boss may not hold it against you.
Being known as a pushover at work could hurt your career in more ways than one, whether it’s getting stuck with the lousiest projects or losing out on a chance to get promoted. Therefore, if you’re starting to be known as the resident pushover, nip that sentiment in the bud before it really sets you back. It’s a far better bet than letting others walk all over you and making yourself miserable in the process.
This article first appeared in Fast Company