As the older sister, I always spoke up on my little sister’s behalf. If someone was giving her a hard time, I’d step in. If there was a treat to be had, I’d make sure she got one too. She hardly had to do or say anything because I was there to advocate for her.

So when I moved up to the “big school” with all the other 10 year-olds, I was worried. What would happen to my little sister back in elementary school when she had to speak for herself?

In the end, my little sister learned to advocate for herself and she did just fine. In fact, she probably did much better without my “protection” getting in the way!

Just as I couldn’t always be at the right place at the right time to speak up for my little sister, you won’t always have the luxury in your career of having an ardent advocate fighting your corner. That’s why the best advocate to count on is yourself.

Why is it important to advocate for yourself?

Clearly, advocating for yourself is vital when you don’t have sponsors, mentors and managers advocating for you – it’s also a way to get your stakeholders to become supporters.

But even when you have those supporters, it’s still an important career skill to be able to speak on your own behalf.

For example, no matter how many times a senior colleague reassured me that one of my team members had ambition and could stand his ground in a tough meeting and fight for our corner, I didn’t believe it until I saw this behavior with my own eyes.

To me, Ben was the quiet one who sat at the far end of the meeting table and hardly said a word. Sure, he was a hard worker and did everything I asked, but so was my personal assistant. It was hardly the case for promotion to Director level!

It wasn’t until I saw Ben advocate for his position in our team meetings and hold his ground in the face of peer pressure – and to do it more than once – that I finally came around to believing it.

But while it’s easy to know that you need to advocate for yourself, what does it look, feel and sound like?

What it looks like to advocate for yourself in your career

Advocating for yourself in your career is simply making sure the right people are aware of your aspirations. Putting yourself on the radar. Making the case for why you should be chosen to lead a project, get a raise or get that promotion.

Sometimes it means making a proposal in writing. Other times, it could be speaking up in a room full of people who didn’t quite understand your proposal. It could also be putting your hand up to volunteer for a project, role or initiative. Or finally having that conversation with your boss about your pay or promotion prospects.

Basically, it’s showing up and speaking up in situations where someone else has a say in how things turn out for you. The challenge is to do it well.

The mistakes to avoid when advocating for yourself

As with so many things in life, the difference between advocating for yourself well versus poorly is all about the how. In my experience, there are two main mistakes people make when it comes to advocating for themselves career-wise.

Advocating too little

The first mistake is to let that challenging feeling build into fear. The kind of fear that gets in the way of advocating for yourself at all. As a “nice Chinese girl”, this was my natural tendency.

And on those few occasions when I got past my fear, I’d advocate in such a subtle way that no one noticed at all. Like winking in the dark: you know you’ve done it but no one else does!

While my career turned out well in the end, I know I missed a couple of promotions because I wasn’t an effective advocate for my own career at the time.

Advocating too much

The second mistake is at the other end of the spectrum when you go too far. This is when your positive intentions are met with a negative reaction from your boss, colleague or whoever else is in the audience.

Often, it happens when you let frustration get in the way. If you desperately want something but fear you’re not going to get it (and maybe you’ve been denied in the past), it’s natural to feel frustrated and even angry. That can lead to feeling entitled and aggressively pushing for the outcome you want and feel you deserve.

This happens because your mindset affects your behavior, which affects your outcomes. When your mindset is based in frustration, anger and entitlement, the way you speak, the words you choose and your body language will reflect that negative mindset.

Take my client Lara (not her real name), for example. She was up for a big promotion during a bad year for the business. The rumor was that very few people would get promoted. Even those who were deserving might have to wait a year. Having worked hard and sacrificed vacation time to deliver on her revenue targets, Lara couldn’t bear the thought of having to go through another year of proving herself.

So she went into high gear to make sure her boss and her boss’s boss knew exactly what her expectations were. The first time she brought up the topic, the conversation went well. Both managers fully supported her promotion, but with the caveat of “we’re going to push as hard as we can, but headquarters has the final say.”

Unsatisfied with this answer, Lara kept raising the topic with her managers to make sure they understood her position. During those conversations, she was so upset that she couldn’t stop repeating what she’d already said even after making her point.

Until finally in our coaching session she saw that she had taken her advocacy too far. She was able to change her mindset and behavior before it became a real problem, and ultimately got her promotion.

If mistakes in advocating for yourself are a little like the Goldilocks children’s story where the first bowl of porridge is “too hot” and the second bowl of porridge is “too cold”, how do you do it “just right”?

How to advocate for yourself in the right way

Striking the right balance between too little and too much advocating means tailoring your communication to the person you’re talking to. It’s counterintuitive but advocating for yourself is not all about you. It’s also about the person on the receiving end.

Remembering this will keep you from falling into the same trap as Lara: being so focused on her own perspective and frustrations that it was a one-way conversation where ironically, neither she nor her managers felt heard.

Advocating for yourself successfully requires self-awareness, awareness of the other person, a little pre-planning and being able to adjust your behavior in the moment.

Being self-aware helps you bring the best version of yourself to the conversation. Being “other-aware” means you’re paying attention to how your points are landing with the other person during the conversation so you can make mid-course adjustments.

Pre-planning equips you with the words and “go to” phrases that make you comfortable with what you’re saying so you can approach the conversation with confidence. Especially opening lines, what to say if things are heading for trouble, and closing lines.

Having these in your back pocket will give you the freedom to be fully present throughout the conversation. When you’re able to be “in the moment”, you can pick up on nuances and improvise if things are heading where you want them to. And if things stay on track, being present will help you know when to stop talking!

When you should advocate for yourself

As for when to advocate for yourself, I’ve learned that it’s best not to treat it as a one-time event. The more you make it a normal part of your life, the less stressful it will be.

For me, it became normalized when I adopted the approach of mentioning interesting things my team and I were working on as part of ongoing conversations.

If you weave into your daily conversations brief anecdotes about what’s going on in your work (or life), it allows you to regularly let people know what you’re doing, the aspirations you have and how you and your team are contributing value. It’ll also help you develop the valuable skill of being able to tell people what I call the “gel cap” version of your story (i.e., small and easy-to-swallow).

Then, when it’s time to have the big, scary conversation, it’ll be a natural extension of the regular conversations you’ve been having all along. It won’t be a big deal for you, and it will come as no surprise to your managers or colleagues.

So, how about you?

What’s your natural tendency when it comes to advocating for yourself at work, whether that’s too little, too much or just right?

Leave me a comment and let me know.