• Fern Lee

Assertiveness in the workplace - what it means for your career and how you can achieve it

Updated: Jan 2

Nowadays, words like 'assertiveness' and 'executive presence' get thrown around a lot in the workplace. They want women to be more assertive, to have executive presence, or else,, they say, your career won't go places.

What do words like assertiveness and executive presence mean in the workplace? And how do you get some of it?

Assertiveness and executive presence are a lot like having hutzpah - a lot of cheek that gets results.

This is a tricky line for women to walk. Men who are assertive and have executive presence are known as leaders, bold and bright. Women who are assertive and have executive presence are known as witches, bossy and bitchy.

So how do we walk this fine line in order to gain the respect of our peers and bosses, be heard and grow as a leader in your organization?

First, we need to understand how women are perceived in the workplace. Women aren't often thought of as leaders. There aren't many women at the top, (check out my blogpost here explaining why here) so our authority is already eroded by a lack of numbers.

We are physically smaller than men, and also have higher-pitched voices that don't shout out authority and command presence immediately. Coupled with the fact that we might already be intimidated by men, we might (unknowingly sometimes) be less vocal and softer than men who are likely to be in their element amongst their own kind, and therefore uninhibited in voicing their opinions, likely to listen to their own kind more than a woman.

How do we counter-act this?

It can play to our benefit at first as we will now have time to observe and understand the dynamics among the group without being observed ourselves. Oftentimes, we are ignored or considered unimportant, so we can take this chance to learn about the different personalities in the office and how the group dynamics work.

When we learn how the dynamics amongst colleagues and bosses work, we can see who our likely allies are, who sits on the fence about women leaders and who are the ones totally opposed to women leaders. We can figure out how to work with those willing to be our allies in order to help us strengthen our leadership positions.

We can also observe ourselves and how we are perceived in the group.

Are we perceived as weak and timid because of our body language - how we speak, how we hold ourselves, the tone of our voice, how we dress, eye contact, posture, whether we tilt our heads or not?

Are we often dismissed, unheard, unnoticed because we don't speak up enough and when we do, we aren't forthright or commanding enough, we ask permission instead of making statements, the pitch of our voice is too high?

Observing our own behavior and learning how others see us will help us work towards changing that perception.

Different situations and scenarios within the workplace will call for a different persona. We might want to be perceived as authoritative and assertive in meetings. We will want to be heard, appear to be contributing to the team, getting noticed and ultimately be considered a valuable key player.

Other times, we might want to be the nurturing mentor showing care and concern for a subordinate or fellow colleague. We want to soften our voice and play the motherly role then.

We don't necessarily need to demonstrate one persona all the time. Assertiveness and executive presence do not mean one type of characteristic. We can be nurturing at times yet authoritative and firm at other times. But with each interaction, we want to demonstrate leadership and authority, someone whom the team or boss can rely on in times of crisis or need.

So, we get to choose which persona we want to show depending on what situation we are in.

At this point in time, you might think that this is all rather complicated. But I urge you to not give up because being multi-faceted is important. We show that we are flexible, compassionate yet stoic in our leadership. Once you understand the differences in body and verbal language you are using, it is easy to get the hang of.

By the way, we already do this subconsciously in the larger world. We play different roles - we are mothers, daughters, wives, employees, employers, mentors, mentees, customers etc. And we act according to the role we perceive ourselves as, as well as how society perceive us as, in any given situation. This isn't anything new.

But being aware of this can help YOU help shape and change the perception others have of you. We can create our own persona that we would like others to see us as - authoritative, assertive, a likable and respected presence.

We can create the leadership role we want.

And by learning to shape our own role and persona in different situations, we can prevent being perceived as a bitch. If we allow our colleagues to see us in different roles we appear like an all-round leader - fair and just, authoritative and empathetic. Instead of being bitchy, we are authoritative.

From there, you are able to build a credible reputation as a well-respected leader in your organization.

If you need to talk about your situation at work, your career progression or a change in career, do contact me at fern@fernleecoaching.com and I would be happy to speak to you. I offer a first-time complimentary coaching session to help you, no strings attached.

Have a wonderful day,




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©2019 by Fern Lee Career Coaching