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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Feeling Frustrated? How to Advocate for Yourself at Work

“I think I need to quit.”

When my client Sasha came to me a few months ago, these were the first words out of her mouth. She had recently taken a promotion and relocated to a new office for her job in the petrochemical industry, which seemed like an exciting move for her career.

But she quickly admitted quite the opposite—between demeaning co-workers and a vague manager, she thought she’d made a huge mistake by taking the promotion.

If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, you know how daunting it can be. You take a job or new role assuming that you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into—but when you get there, things aren’t quite what you expected. So most people do one of two things: Flee the job ASAP or sink into a miserable pit of despair.

Luckily, I convinced Sasha she didn’t need to do either. While her concerns were very real, I recognized this as an opportunity for her to flex her muscles, develop the ability to advocate for herself at work, and confront the issues head on.

And if you’re in the same position, you can do the same. Here are the six core steps I taught Sasha to advocate for herself at work—and how you can use the same methods to lead to a more fulfilling career.

1. Believe in Yourself and Your Abilities

In her new office, Sasha was the youngest and only female member of her new team. Even worse, her co-workers made it clear that they didn’t take her seriously—one of her colleagues even assumed she was his “assistant” and pushed his work on her!

So, even though she had just been given a promotion, it didn’t seem like her capabilities and contributions were being appreciated—and that was incredibly disheartening. However, I told her that quitting (which was her first inclination) would be endorsing the exact outlook of her team and admitting defeat.

The first step in advocating for yourself is to believe that you deserve to be advocated for—by believing you have the skills, abilities, and talents that landed you the job in the first place. When you realize this simple fact, you’ll be in a much better mindset to move forward.

2. Remember That No One’s a Mind Reader

Unfortunately, Sasha’s dissatisfaction didn’t stop at team dynamics—she also struggled with her new boss. She was given unclear job objectives, received vague feedback (“You’re doing great!”), and had no idea how her boss would evaluate her performance.

Now, Sasha’s boss wasn’t being malicious—he simply didn’t see the situation from her perspective. After all, he managed her the same way he led the rest of the team. This was how he rolled, and no one else on his staff had an issue. So unless she brought these things to her boss’s attention, he’d never realize how much she was struggling.

If you’re in a similar situation, remember: No manager is a mind reader. You can’t assume that anyone knows what’s bugging you—you have to speak up for yourself.

3. Get Up on the Balcony and See the Big Picture

Wherever you are in your organization, there’s probably a lot of history that’s made things the way they are.

In Sasha’s case, she was working in a well-established department that was making a lot of money. And because of that success, the company let some things slide: Employees didn’t have clear performance plans, feedback was infrequent and non-specific, and overall, there didn’t seem to be a sense of accountability.

In order to advocate for herself, Sasha needed to see the situation from the other players’ perspective—in the context of the organization as a whole. The reality was, there wasn’t much oversight. Team members wrote their own rules and were given a lot of freedom—and that was the way the company worked. In short, she was trying to play by the rules—while the rest of the group did exactly the opposite.

4. Take Stock of What’s Working and What Isn’t

As unhappy as she was, Sasha didn’t dislike everything about her situation. Her new job provided a sizeable salary, generous vacation time, and the opportunity to earn a fully paid-for MBA. In her frustration, she’d lost sight of these benefits.

A negative perspective of your work can easily balloon and overtake the positive, energizing things about your job. So when you feel like giving up, take stock of both the good and the bad. Most likely, there are benefits worth fighting for.

5. Determine What Your “Ask” Is

Once she knew exactly what wasn’t working, Sasha made a list of her specific requests: a clear description of her responsibilities, regular feedback sessions with her manager, participation in a group project that would expand her visibility in the organization, and a way to address the work being dumped on her by her colleague.

She and I then framed those points in a way that would show how these issues, when resolved, would help her team, her manager, and the entire organization. By leveraging your talking points this way, you can effectively turn what may sound like complaints into something much more positive for everyone on your team.

6. Design Positive Conversations to State Your Position

Armed with very specific points to cover, we then designed a conversation for Sasha to have with her manager. She would start by outlining her current situation, what she was doing well, and what she wanted to see changed. Then, she’d propose a resolution, focusing on concrete ways to make her—and her boss—more successful. (What manager doesn’t want that?) 

In the end, she had a great conversation with her boss. She calmly and clearly presented her well thought-out points and made her case professionally (no whining here!).

As a result, her boss created a timeline for shifting the work her co-worker had delegated to her, and allowed her to write a concrete job description for herself, which he later evaluated and agreed to. They weren’t instant fixes—and she didn’t get everything she wanted—but she got a lot more than what she’d had before the conversation.

As a bonus, her boss started to see her in a different light and started talking about assigning her more strategic assignments. With that one conversation, she turned the job she was about to quit into a career she was excited about.

Later, Sasha sent me a note that read, “I really had more power than I thought.” Aha! That’s the key. Employees have more power than they think—but too often, they leave this power on the table because they feel frustrated or defeated.

So if you’re intimidated by the thought of advocating for what you need in the workplace, approach it a little differently: Remind your manager or colleagues that you want them to be successful, then share that you have some ideas for how to make happen. When you present it in such a positive way, you’ll find that you have much more power than you thought.

Photo of employee and boss courtesy of Shutterstock.