Are you a wimp at work?

Your boss wants you to work late again — but you can’t say no. Your team members don’t listen to your ideas. You’re shy about making suggestions or speaking up in meetings, or you’re letting things slide because you want to avoid an argument. You want people to like you — and you want to keep your job no matter what the cost.

Sound familiar? Few people want to be “the bad guy” or to “rock the boat” (especially in a rough economy) but that instinct can be more harmful than helpful. Experts warn that passive behaviour — where you constantly put aside your own needs, rights and opinions — can actually have a negative impact on your career.

The mistakes we make

Isn’t it better to “play along” or be “easy-going”? No — because we’re often trading short-term rewards for long-term problems. For example, passive workers often think they’re doing the right thing when they make these mistakes:

Avoiding confrontation. You’re dodging stressful conflicts with a co-worker, but ultimately your long-term relationship with that person suffers for a want of good communication. If you’re the one in charge of others, your workers may take advantage of the situation and your boss may think you lack strong leadership skills.

Holding back your opinions (especially ones that contradict someone else’s). You think you’re keeping the peace by “going with the group”, but you’re actually sending the message that your opinions don’t matter, you don’t have anything to contribute or you lack confidence. In any case, you’re losing the chance to demonstrate your skills and expertise while others have an opportunity to shine.

Always agreeing. You want to be agreeable and known as the “nice guy”, but you could be losing people’s respect because they know you’re not being straightforward. Your “yes” doesn’t hold much weight because you’re always saying it, and people will wonder what you aren’t telling them.

Covering for others. Making up for other people’s less-than-stellar work only reinforces the idea that what they’re doing is acceptable. For example, if you re-write coworkers’ reports rather than addressing the workmanship, they’ll go on thinking nothing is wrong and they won’t learn anything.

Not saying no to extra work. Taking on extra projects when you’re plate is already full and staying late may make you look good at work, but what about outside the office? Your family and friends — as well as your boss — will quickly learn that work is your number one priority and they’ll act accordingly.

Worse yet, people aren’t happy being passive. All of that resentment, anger and stress is going to build up over time, and workers lose satisfaction in their jobs and start to feel like victims. When emotions come to a boiling point, some people will lash out at co-workers for seemingly no reason, and others will get revenge through passive-aggressive behaviour (like not completing tasks they don’t want to do). Employers and coworkers don’t know what’s behind these actions; all they see is behaviour that makes their co-worker appear emotional and unreliable.

Not to mention the toll the stress will take on health. Headaches, fatigue and upset stomachs are just a start — stress plays a major role in serious illness like heart disease and stroke too. Taking a vacation and trying to “leave the office at the office” can provide some respite, but they don’t address the stress we feel while we’re at work.

In short, being passive isn’t going to make you a happier, healthier employee or put you in line for a promotion. So what’s the solution? Experts advise it’s time to brush up on workplace social skills.

Assertive behaviour — what is it?

If you think being more aggressive is the answer to passivity, you could trade being the office pushover for being the office bully. People who practice aggressive behaviours are seen as needing to dominate and get ahead at the expense of others, and they come across as manipulative, selfish and always needing to be in control. The Golden Rule applies to the workplace as well — treat others as you want to be treated.

Experts therefore recommend aiming for the “middle ground” between passiveness and aggressiveness: Assertiveness. You respect the rights, feelings and opinions of other people while showing yourself the same courtesy. You communicate clearly and effectively with others, and you’re willing to work on resolving issues rather than avoiding them. The focus is on the win-win scenario — both parties are happy and no one dominates or bullies.

It’s not easy to break old habits, but there are many benefits to make it worth your while — like stronger, more honest relationships, less stress, more respect and increased job satisfaction. Best of all: you’re strengthening your interpersonal and leadership skills — both of which are attractive to employers.

9 tips for being more assertive

Sounds appealing, but where can you start? Here are some tips from the and WebMD:

Assess your current behaviour. Do you speak up in meetings? Do you avoid certain people? Are you taking on more work than you can handle? What situations or relationships do you want to improve? Experts note that identifying areas for improvement is a good place to start. (Find out how assertive you are with’s Quiz.)

Use “I” statements. Sentences that start with “I” (like “I think” and “I want”) show listeners that you’re open to other points of view. It’s subtle, but such statements come across as expressing your opinion rather than stating an absolute fact or making an accusation. On the contrary, saying things like “you’re wrong” rather than “I disagree” is more likely to be met with a negative reaction.

Learn to say no. If you find the “y word” on the tip of your tongue, give yourself a moment to think before responding. Buy some time by saying you’ll think about it, or you have to check your schedule first (but make sure you follow up on these replies). If you don’t want to say no to an important project, ask your boss if you can shift your priorities and deadlines to accommodate the new work. (See The art of no for more tips)

Leave emotions out of it. Being angry or upset can get in the way of good communication — that’s why experts recommend waiting until you’ve cooled off before having difficult conversations (if possible). Try to keep your voice firm, your breathing even and remain calm.

Practice makes perfect. How you say something is as important as what you say. Practicing allows you to clarify your thinking and work on clear communication. Write it down, practice in front of a mirror or rehearse in front of a friend to get some feedback.

Get your body into it. Your voice isn’t the only thing that’s speaking — body language is just as important. Good posture, maintaining eye contact and a positive facial expression can help you show confidence, even if you’re not feeling it.

Seek clarification. Reacting to what you believe others are thinking can lead to misunderstandings. Assertiveness works both ways — so encourage others to be direct with you by asking what they mean or to clarifying a point.

Be coachable. Don’t silently stew about any criticism that comes your way or take it personally. Show that you’re open to feedback and eager to learn from it. If your boss or client doesn’t like something, find out why so you can improve.

And if you’re willing to “take your lumps”, then others will be more receptive to what you have to say as well.

Train up. If you want some serious help, take a course or seminar in assertiveness training.

Overall, don’t expect changes to happen overnight. Breaking established habits is going to take some time and practice. Start small, and practice good communication in settings that aren’t so risky, like with a friend or family member before moving on to work. Assertiveness works well for all relationships, and it can even help you get ahead at work.