[ARTICLE] Assert Yourself at Work or Die Trying
Conversation with Numa Perrier
"It’s about knowing what you want and not being afraid of saying it. At the same time, I have had to learn, within certain relationships, how to stand back depending on the dynamic."
Have you ever spoken up at a meeting only to be interrupted by a fellow attendee who then proceeds to drone on as if you didn’t exist?
Has a discussion with your manager reminded you more of a confrontation with a schoolyard bully than with a respected colleague?
Or freelance family, have you called a client who owes you money only to be ignored, or worse yet, patronized?
And don’t even get us started on passive aggressive e-mails, punitive meeting notices for early AF wood shedding sessions, or snide remarks in response to ideas in so-called “anything goes brainstorming sessions.”
It’s not shocking that rudeness in the work environment is real, but you might be surprised at the toll it can take. Workers who are regularly subjected to incivility suffer not only feelings of humiliation, embarrassment or displacement, there are actual physical symptoms, according to a study by the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Stomach issues, headaches and insomnia are also byproducts of boorishness, the research revealed.
It might also call employees to strike back with telekinetic abilities. Oh no, wait… That just happened on one episode of our HR Season 2: Cubicle Creepshow inspired by “Carrie.” You can watch that HERE.
But even if your boss’s, co-worker’s or client’s curtness doesn’t unlock your inner Stephen King character, that doesn’t mean you have to lay down and take their abuse. There are ways to assert yourself in a way that fits with your personality and communication style.
Few know that better than Numa Perrier, co-founder of the viral and acclaimed Black&Sexy TV network, and now bawse of her own content emporium, the eponymous House of Numa. As a woman, a woman of color at that, L.A.-based Perrier has found that standing up for herself is critical to her success and well-being. This actor, filmmaker and mind/star of upcoming film, “Jezebel” took some time from her packed schedule to share the gospel of getting folks right together. She also talks about how, as an extrovert, she has learned to listen better.
Check out our Q&A with Perrier and try to resist leaping out of your seat, pounding on your chest and yelling “I’m a boss” by the end of this empowering exchange.
Q: Does asserting yourself come naturally or is it something you’ve learned over time?
Perrier: Hmmm...I think that it’s partially a personality trait. I’m extroverted. I tend to be pretty straightforward and blunt about things. It’s about knowing what you want and not being afraid of saying it. At the same time, I have had to learn, within certain relationships, how to stand back depending on the dynamic. And in areas where I’m not comfortable, where I may have the drive and ambition, and may not have full confidence, I have had to learn how to be assertive in those instances.
Q: As a Black woman running your own business, how often would you say your authority or expertise is challenged and how do you deal with it?
Perrier: Definitely, there are so many stories and instances and times when I felt marginalized. It happened even though I was at the head of a company that is flourishing and exciting, part of this strong brand [Black&Sexy TV] I’ve held that post for many years. And within that, there were some times where I would go to establish a relationship and experienced an issue. There was one instance where Black&Sexy was working with another company and I felt that it was important that we get to know the people at the company personally and forge a good relationship with them because that’s a big step to being successful. As much as people say things aren’t personal, that it’s just business, I don’t subscribe to that. All business is personal. People have to want to work with you as a person. I felt it was important to lay that groundwork and I did that and later when one of my male partners met with them, in forging a relationship with them, I noticed they gave deference and more respect to my male partner. I could feel the difference. There was another time when at a conference where we were both equal partners, but I was introduced as his wife...and I was not even his wife. I was also introduced as his girlfriend...I was not seen as a partner in certain instances. It did happen on enough occasions where I definitely saw a pattern. In the digital and entertainment space, I’m working as a bridge between both of those landscapes, there are predominantly men and it is still the case that even if you are a head executive, people will think: “Well, you must be more like the marketing person.” It’s not looked at as we could be the chief strategist up on this stage even when we are. And so I’ve always had to kind of figure out when is it important to let people know and when is it not important. When is it just fine to let those things go? Just as a point of annoyance, I’ll say that these are the times when the male counterpart needs to step up and make sure the female is cc’d on e-mails, and they should correct things when they are wrong. That didn’t always happen. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. I was always having to make the decision: is it worth it? How much am I going to let it affect my relationship with this person or the work moving forward?
Q: Does the adage there’s a time and place for everything work in this case? Or should you be prepared to be bold and defend yourself no matter who is present or whether it is one-on-one or at a company meeting?
Perrier: With timing, it’s funny because it’s almost like it’s never a good time to do it, but you just need to do it anyway. You have to decide what you are ready to take on. It’s more like that, it’s not from the perspective of when is the best time. There is no best time. Nobody wants you to do that.
Q: How important is self definition?
Perrier: One of the first steps to asserting yourself is to know who you are. If you know who you are, you know how you would like to be called, from your name to other identity points. You have to be really clear about that. There’s no point that is “OK” in other people’s mind for you To define yourself or correct them on a title. It’s either abnormal or rubs them the wrong way. Otherwise, they are just not thinking about it. You just have to be OK with what you are OK with.
Q: As a follow up, is there ever a consistently bad time to assert yourself?
Perrier: Well, there’s a collective conversation all around this right now with the #MeToo movement. It’s going to require a lot of us to unlearn some things, both men and women. As they do that, now, how do we position ourselves in negotiations, in meetings, how do we position ourselves when we’re starting some exciting things. I have some major developments in my life this year and I’m watching this echoing across the entire landscape. There have been many times where people have got it right, men and people, sometimes it is about them not knowing, and when they know, they apologize, they sit up a little straighter, and pull it together. I’ve not had a lot of issues with this that happened in my face. It’s what’s going on in the background. With more intimate relationships, that’s when it’s been the more prickly situation. People are used to you behaving one way and when you exercise different boundaries, it can get really slippery and it has. It’s something you have to push through. You will doubt yourself.
Q: Well, you say that you are an extrovert so even when it’s uncomfortable, you find ways to step up and speak out. How would you advise an introvert to deal with such a situation if their nature is not to cause a scene?
Perrier: Two things: One would be writing it down, put something in a letter so that there’s more time to think and it’s still clear. It may be easier than a face to face discussion or speaking their mind right at that moment. The other is to have a representative. No matter what field you are in, if you have a representative for your voice, that can be helpful. Your giving your message to the rep and they are giving your message to the audience. And not everyone likes that confrontation; there is a reason people have representatives. They help neutralize things and move negotiation forward. Whether you are introverted or extroverted, that can be helpful, but especially for introverted people.
Q: Working in the entertainment industry where everyone has an opinion or take, how do you make sure you’re heard without drowning out someone else’s voice?
Perrier: I am conscious of that. I think part of leadership is knowing how to listen well. That’s a trait I’ve had to learn. I do enjoy listening to people, coming to an understanding, but sometimes I am so excited about my ideas and decision I have or the way I think things should be done, that it can be hard to hear someone else. And I think everyone can do things to learn that as well, whether it means they have to take a seminar, go online and learn about listening and understanding others and really letting yourself hear other people instead of waiting for your turn to speak.