I recently had a conversation with a friend who is studying a PhD here in Oxford.
She is originally from China, and her intelligence is only exceeded by her work ethic and desire to make her PhD supervisor happy.
She confessed to me with a look a mild despair on her face, “I am making slow progress. I send emails but people don’t respond. I think they are ignoring me.”
Intrigued, I wanted to find out more, and asked a few questions to see what might be the matter.
“Have you called the person?” “No.”
“Have you been to see them in person?” “I spoke to him once, but I almost felt like crying.”
“And what did he say?” “He asked me to provide a detailed plan before I can run the experiment?”
“And have you created the plan?” “No. That’s the strange thing. I haven’t.”
Hmm, I seemed to be getting closer to the heart of the problem.
How could it be that a competent, motivated and well meaning individual (an Oxford student no less) could be stopped dead in her tracks by a seemingly surmountable obstacle?
Some would say that it’s simply a matter of emotional intelligence and having the maturity to deal with people.
That’s certainly part of it, but I think the problem is slightly more interesting and complex than that. In fact, this is not the first time I have experienced this situation. I have actually confronted it myself.
If you come from a culture or a family that has taught you not to assert yourself (which I believe is influencing my friend’s situation), then being assertive in the workplace is likely to be near on impossible, even if you are otherwise quite emotionally intelligent and pretty mature.
If you have a personal belief or way of acting that has been reinforced over time, so much so that you no longer see it as a matter of choice, then how can you possibly overcome it?
How can you overcome something that has become a part of you?
Luckily, as it happens, I believe there is a simple solution.
People seem to have no trouble taking on new and different personas when they believe they are playing a game. And being at work is just another game. There are rules to follow, goals to achieve, and prizes to be won for good performance.
You may not be assertive by nature. But that needn’t stand in your way. You just need to play the game.