How to Assert Yourself Without Being Assertive, and Other Lessons I Was Told to Learn: What I Have Learned

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Over the last two decades, I have been given advice on how to better work on a team by stifling my voice. This will be a blog series on how to unlearn these lessons. In this post, I will explore the lessons I have learned about myself and what I plan to do to interrupt poor supervisory skills.

How to Assert Yourself Without Being Assertive, and other Lessons I Was Told to Learn: What I Have Learned

In a previous post, How to Assert Yourself Without Being Assertive, and Other Lessons I Was Told to Learn, I began to document some of the pivotal experiences that happened to me professionally. The supervisors who were part of these experiences were trying to change my impact on the team through what I now believe was negative behavior modification.

Before writing about these incidents in one place, I never made the connection about their cumulative impact. I also never thought of my previous supervisors’ leadership as poor, as I was craving their positive feedback. I plan to explore these experiences in a series of blogs. In this blog post, I’ll share the lessons learned from exploring the impact of poor supervision and leadership. This post has been updated to reflect some additional lessons learned.

Was The Supervision As Bad As I Remember?

Often during the recounting of my memories, I struggled with how this narrative was shaping. On the one hand, I worked hard to develop skills that have helped students learn in the college environment. On the other hand, I have had to develop these skills because my supervisors at the time didn’t think I had the ability to move up. And told me as such. Thinking about my poor leadership and supervision experiences has helped me link my other experiences as part of this narrative.

I’ve thought back to the one-on-one meeting that demonstrated a lack of faith in my skills. I thought about how what I wore in the office mattered more than my impact on students. Or how my SSAO called out my gay identity above my Latino identity in the workplace and told this to my boss. I’ve remembered all the other tasks I was voluntold to complete but then critiqued when I couldn’t do all the additional work with 100% accuracy. And countless other issues that have happened to me in my 20 years working in higher education.

And I think to myself, at the same time, “Oh man it can’t be that bad. Are you sure you want to put all of this out there? What if someone you know reads this and thinks it’s about them? Do you want to burn those bridges when you’re unemployed?”

Even now, often I’ll sit in whatever coffeehouse I am writing in for the day and feel a cold chill go down my spine. I feel my breathing change and a cold sweat. I know this is a physical response to the general fear and anxiety of putting all of this into writing. And still, I have chosen to write it all down.

The “Struggle is Real” but a False Equivalency

What has helped me stay connected to this awkward and anxiety-ridden experience is how much this has resonated with others. I have tried to stay connected to peers within the student affairs world and listen to how they have managed likewise challenging experiences. Something that has been a common thread is feeling like they are being tested. That they should and could learn how to be successful if only they ________________ (fill in the blanks).

I often read social media posts that these barriers to being our authentic self in the work place are like other barriers to overcome. With a “Just Do It” attitude and an Elle Woods “I’ll show them” energy, we’re expected to demonstrate to others and ourselves that we can learn from every lesson tossed our way.

I was told to learn had to do with being less-than. “Be less forward with your thoughts. Don’t make others feel intimidated by what you know. Speak up less and share your thoughts last. Don’t stand out with who you are and blend in.”

But who did the struggle really benefit? Not me.

I recognize that for many, the struggle is real. But it’s, often, not the struggle we have created for ourselves.

For example, when I was trying to figure out how to schedule students to work at the information desk with a limited budget but with 18 hours of coverage needed – that was 100% real struggle. My faith and belief in myself, and some excellent planning skills, helped me overcome this struggle!

Being told to physically sit on my hands in meetings for six months was not.

I want to wreck this false equivalency from now on and dismantle the idea that we can use positive thinking to change poor leadership and supervision on our own.

What I Have Learned, As a Staff Member

Many of these experiences recounted in the series happened at least a decade ago. And yet there is still something for me to learn from recounting them. Below are two of the lessons I have learned as a supervised staff member.

What I Learned: Take Up Space and Assert Your Skills

One of the ways I was treated, consistently, across the many institutions I have worked, is being asked to be less-than. Whether it was being told to learn nicer ways to ask people to give me information for which I was responsible but wasn’t being given (true story) or use fewer words to train people (who I wasn’t responsible for training) because I took too long to talk (true story), I’ve been called out many times for just doing my job. And in all of these examples that happened to me was because I wasn’t meeting someone’s idea of doing the job correctly.

Was I doing the work within my own skills? Yes. Was anyone hurt or harmed by my style? No. And yet… I’ve learned that I can and must speak up about these attempts to curb my style. To give a different take on this, were I working with others that highlighted my own biases I would have immediately welcomed the feedback.

As I am writing this section I remember a time when I worked for a supervisor who openly doubted my skills. In the months before my departure from the department, I received feedback on something I had worked on that she didn’t like. I specifically asked ‘Is what I did hurting or harming students learning?’ She said no. I said ‘Then that is your opinion and I am going to keep doing it.’ I know I have the power to do this within me and just need to remind myself to be that person.

What I Learned: Reinforce Positive Supervision

In “How to Manage Up” the author points out ten ways to build a positive supervisor relationship. One of the points resonated with me because it has worked for me in my best supervisor relationships.

Number seven on the list is “Tell Him or Her How to Best Use Your Talents.” By the time I worked in my last office, this is what I did with anyone who supervised me. All of the points on the list worked great for me but this point highlights something that directly benefited me. Instead of being asked to be the worst or less-than version of myself in the office, I highlighted what I did the best. And then I would produce stellar results.

By owning my strengths and crafting my own narrative, I could stop participating in my own sabotage. What I mean is that I stopped trying to be the best all-around leader. Instead, I worked to become the best version of my strengths and skills. And it required that I lead the way with my own supervisor. He was one of the best supervisors because I finally understood what I needed from him. And I had the courage to tell him.

What I Have Learned, As a Supervisor

It would be irresponsible for me to speak about poor supervisors and their impact on the workplace if I didn’t speak to myself as a supervisor. Supervision has not been a natural skill for me and I know there is still much to learn. But from this self-exploration, there are two things I have learned to do differently in the next workplace.

What I Learned: Lead with Expectations and Mission

As a leader, it can be easy to lead with the finished outcome in mind. With limited time and energy, it is easy to manage how people work so they produce what we had in mind first. But this stifles creativity and work styles. I know this happens to me, but it doesn’t mean I’m immune from leading in this way. I am committed to interrupting this behavior in myself and hope to reinforce work styles different from my own.

What I Learned: Lead with a Mind on Equity and Grace

One of the challenges I have found myself facing is being supervised by someone who wanted to make sure all the staff was treated the same. But the reality is that we aren’t the same. We have different education, work styles, identities, all of which impact our ability to work on a team and produce results. In these efforts to treat us equally, some part of me was isolated and pointed out.

What I want to do in my own leadership is recognize differences. Think about how they add to the diversity of thought and action. Support the exploration of these differences and listen when we get it wrong. And extend grace to those who need to think and act differently, but with accountable reinforcement.

Lesson Learned: Hire People Based on Their Strengths and Skills

Similar to the above lesson, I have learned to be clear about the skills I am looking for with staff. I want to highlight these skills more in interviews. And during training, I want staff to learn more about how to capitalize on their skills. Equity and diversity means we should be conscious about these differences and create an environment where these differences are celebrated.

Unpacking the Supervision and Assertive Topics Again and Again

I approached this topic from the viewpoint of poor supervision, but initially struggled with how to frame the issues that affected me professionally. Many reasons impacted it, but the main involved describing the power dynamics and identity politics involved. I know I will revisit this topic again, when I’ve had more time to unpack the different politics that were at play in each of the offices where these situations occurred. If you have a viewpoint you want me to explore, please share it in the comments below.

I encourage any of my readers to begin unpacking their own baggage. The scrutiny is necessary if we want to move past these issues and make sure we don’t perpetuate them. I am owning my role in interrupting the cycle of poor leadership and encourage you to do the same!

Career Coaching for the Mid-Level Career Professional

I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals, and those supervising professional staff, for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.

Useful Links

10 Ways to Get Your Boss to Trust You Completely:
Managing Upwards – 8 Tactics for Managing Your Boss:
What Managing Up Really Means and 3 Helpful Techniques:

About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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