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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Times You'll Have to Stand Up for Yourself at Work (Because No One Else Will)

A colleague takes credit for your brilliant idea. Your boss gives your dream assignment to a brand new employee. A department head throws your entire team under the bus.

How do you react? Do you speak up and risk sounding shrill and rocking the boat? Or do you suck it up like a good soldier? Think carefully before you answer, because whether you’re conscious of it or not, how you respond to these work situations impacts how people will treat you later.

Margie Warrell, women's leadership advocate and author of Brave: 50 Everyday Acts of Courage to Thrive in Work, Love and Life, says that our behavior teaches people how to treat us, and she’s right. Next time a boss bulldozes you into accepting an assignment better given to someone else or your name is left off a meeting agenda (and there will be a next time), you’ll have to choose your response. And know this: Your colleagues will be watching to see how you’ll behave.

If you let the moment pass without speaking up, you’ll be training that individual (and anyone else who’s watching) that it’s OK to take advantage of you. “If you don’t correct them,” tweeted Warrell, “they’ll know they can get away with it.”

Being easygoing and likable at work can get you a long way in business, but if you really want to be taken seriously on the leadership track, it’s not enough just to be liked. You’ll also need to be respected, and you’ll gain admiration by decisively and diplomatically standing up for yourself.

In the course of an ordinary day at the office, you’ll have opportunities to stand up for yourself and shape how others perceive you. Here’s how to diplomatically handle three tough situations.

1. The Credit-Stealing Colleague

You’re in a meeting, and a colleague claims credit for your work. As you reel from the shock, your self-talk goes into overdrive. “How dare she. The audacity!” you say to yourself. But in the time it takes to process those thoughts, the moment has passed. Everyone in the meeting knows who owned the accomplishment, and no one thinks it’s you.

The next time this happens, you’ve got to act swiftly in a manner that doesn't throw your colleague under the bus in front of the team either. If you confront her publicly, you’ll have zero chance of having a reasonable conversation about it later. If you feel flustered, do your best not to let it show. Speaking with warmth and authority, set the record straight: “Thank you, Karen, for explaining how you initially gathered that data. I’d be happy to speak on how I devised the methodology and performed subsequent analysis.”

Later, but not too much later, in private, the real conversation can take place. Tell Karen that you look forward to future collaboration and won’t ever hesitate to praise her publicly for her contributions. And with a tone that says you mean business, say: “But it’s unacceptable to claim credit for another person’s work. If it happens again, I’m going to have to loop our manager into the conversation.”

It should easily end there.

2. The Bulldozer Boss

You’ve just been “voluntold” you’re it for the worst job on the team, the opposite of the role you wanted. You’d been looking forward to being on the ground in New York coordinating the media tour, but your boss has announced that you’ll be stuck in the office crunching spreadsheets, putting your killer people skills to waste. If you don't say something now, you might be stuck handling paper for a while.

Take charge of your career trajectory before your manager does it for you. Be honest with yourself: Have you been proactively, repeatedly educating him or her about your career goals and what your ideal assignment looks like?

If you’re given an assignment that’s the opposite of the one you wanted, I recommend making a mindset pivot. Don’t think of yourself as being pushed overboard into a career-limiting backwater; rather, look at it as though you’re embarking on a protracted negotiation that can ultimately move you toward your goal. Here’s how it’s done.

Tell your boss (even if it requires some fake enthusiasm), “I understand this is project important to you. I’ll be honest, it’s not my ideal assignment, but I’ll give it my best. What I want to do next is [name your dream assignment].” Ask about scheduling a follow-up conversation after your current task wraps up.

Then, execute the heck out of the crummy project, and when it’s successfully completed, plan a review with your boss. Close the conversation with a gentle reminder of what you’d like to work on next and why you're the best person for that job.

3. The Team-Blaming Leader

A sales executive walks into the engineering department and blames your team for a missed deadline. The group was mildly stressed even before he yelled, “This project is a trainwreck!” and now they’re beyond demotivated. Everyone’s looking to you now, to stand up for yourself and your team.

Start by acknowledging the missed deadline and the sticky situation that both teams are in. Let the sales executive know you’re all in this together, that you take personal accountability, and that you’ll work with him to get the project back on track. Conclude with a firm but fair message, “I know your team is working hard. Mine is too, and this situation has hurt their confidence and motivation. If there’s a future issue with their performance, please address it directly with me before getting them involved.” Your team will feel relieved to know that you’re looking out for them, and that they’re less likely to get attacked again.

Send a follow-up email to the other lead and reiterate the protocol for handling that kind of situation. Make it clear that you’re serious about working together, but that you’ll assume responsibility for motivating and disciplining your own team.

A common theme of all of these scenarios is handling them with diplomacy and grace. You can’t predict when you’ll need to use these tactics. So, practice the skills before you need to call on them in challenging work situations. Knowing when and how to stand up for yourself—in just the right amount at the right time with the right people—is something that gets easier, I promise.

Photo of colleagues talking courtesy of Shutterstock.