A woman in professional attire seated on a stool as he tucks her hair behind her ear

While I’ve never considered myself a people pleaser, when I reflect on my working life to date, I have to concede, the times I’ve said yes to things vastly outweigh the times I’ve said no.

Move that deadline forward by two weeks? No problem! Compromise on my fee for that project? Yes, I can do that. Let a colleague take the credit for my idea? Sure, it’s no big deal.

When I tried to understand why I’ve been so quick to let the “little things” go, I realized the fear of conflict kept me pinned down under an avalanche of yeses. I suspect many of us simply agree to whatever demands come our way at work—unreasonable or otherwise—because we don’t want to rock the boat.

The fear of conflict kept me pinned down under an avalanche of yeses.

When I was desperately trying to climb the rungs of the ladder of my corporate career, I thought being the yes girl, who my boss and colleagues could turn to and who accepted challenges and got things done even in the tightest of pinches, meant I was demonstrating my prowess as a rock-steady professional. I was confident the appropriate pay raises and promotions would follow in due course.

They didn’t. 

It took me a long time to realize I was shrinking myself by doing what everyone else wanted me to do. All my energy was spent on accommodating the needs and demands of others; my own weren’t acknowledged nor considered—even by myself. I never spoke up and actively said I wanted to progress nor did I think I should be paid more for the extra work I was doing, so I wasn’t. 

Learning to speak up for myself at work has been a process, and it’s taken some time to figure out how to do this in a way that’s not only authentic to my professional values but doesn’t paint me as someone who’s obstinate or rude. I don’t believe we have to shout or stomp our feet in order to speak up for ourselves and be heard. We can be measured, calm and self-assured while still being heard.

We can be measured, calm and self-assured while still being heard.

Here are a few things I’ve been adding to my professional toolbox to help me develop a strong, clear voice that allows me to go after what I want at work:

Know what you want.

Possibly the most vital component of speaking up for yourself at work involves knowing what you want. After all, how can you ask for it if you don’t know what it is? This applies across a range of scenarios. Whether it’s pursuing professional development opportunities, handling a dispute or asking for career progression or a raise, you need to be clear on what it is you want to happen and why. The clearer you are, the better.

You need to be clear on what it is you want to happen and why. The clearer you are, the better.

Understand the full context.

As most of us know, context matters, especially at work. This is why asking the right questions to better understand the full context and differing perspectives about a given situation also matters. Being able to speak up for yourself and your work requires knowledge of everything you’re committing to. Oftentimes, we’re so used to saying yes blindly without getting further information, asking the right questions can be empowering.

Ask yourself: Why has the deadline moved? What are the most important things for me to focus on? How has the scope changed? When are we going to assess compensation for the extra responsibilities I’m now taking on? 

Know your (time + work) worth.

As I now freelance full-time, I’ve had to get savvy about how I spend my time and what I say yes to. On a few occasions, clients have moved the goalposts around deadlines and project deliverables. I’ve begun stipulating that these changes come at a cost because of the pressure and time demand they place on me.

I’m upfront about what this is when submitting proposals for projects to clients, and I’ve found that managing expectations in this way keeps everyone on the same page. It’s a way of speaking up for my time, energy and work without getting angry or short. It also ensures my input is valued financially as well as professionally.

I’ve found that managing expectations…keeps everyone on the same page.

Take a step back.

Something I’ve been guilty of in the past is thinking I need to make a decision and give a response immediately. Learning that it’s OK to take a step back and ask for time to reflect on my decision and response have been very empowering. You have to know what you want, and oftentimes, we can’t know immediately what that looks like or how to ask for it. While in the past I’ve seen this as a weakness, I now realize it’s actually the best thing I can do for everyone involved, as it allows me to ask the right questions, consult with others if I need to and be clear on how I want to move forward with a situation. 

The reasons and situations when we’ll need to find our voice and speak up for ourselves at work are vast. I’ve always liked that quote about how courage isn’t always a roar. Sometimes, it’s just a quiet voice that says, “I’ll try again.”

Speaking up for ourselves at work isn’t always about being louder or firmer. We can empower ourselves through conscientious approaches and through setting clear boundaries on exactly what our time and expertise is worth—whether through financial compensation or through asking for what we need to do our jobs better.

Have you learned how to set boundaries at work? Why is it important to communicate your professional needs?

Image via Emily Blake, Darling Issue No. 17

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