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Career Success

How To Practice Self-Advocacy in the Workplace (Go-to Guide)

Written by Liesl Hays
Author, Entrepreneur and Human Resources Strategist
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It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for. You’re in a one-on-one with your manager and they say, “You are one of our company’s highest performers, and I appreciate your contributions so much. What can I do to keep you as part of our team?”

This is a softball. All you have to do is speak up and communicate the growing list of items you’ve thoughtfully constructed that would make you happier at work.

However, you freeze and mechanically say, “I can’t think of anything I need. I’m so grateful for this job and every opportunity you’ve given me.”

As you leave the meeting, you’re mad at yourself for not speaking up because this wouldn’t be the first time. This is just one of the many examples that sit in between you and the work satisfaction you crave.

As you catalog through recent examples, you become painfully aware this problem is more about you than anyone else.

The Importance of Self-Advocacy in the Workplace

We’ve all been there. Asking for what we need at work (often called self-advocacy) is a well-addressed topic, so why is it so hard to do in practice?

Have you found yourself asking:

  • Can I ask my manager for that promotion and still appear grateful?
  • Will my teammates think I’m incompetent if I ask for help in areas that I’m less skilled at?
  • Why do I feel so vulnerable about asking for what I need at work?

After working in Human Resources for over fifteen years, I’ve learned that self-advocacy in the workplace is one of the hardest topics for people to talk about. It is both vulnerable and a bit scary discussing your needs with your colleagues. Plus, there is always the looming fear that your voiced needs will not get met.[1]

Yet, the need for communicating our needs at work is critical for our happiness and the performance of our team.

The highest-performing teams have created an environment of absolute trust. Each member of the team feels psychologically safe to express their ideas, voice their opinions without the fear of retaliation, and ask for what they need.

3 Tips on How to Practice Self-Advocacy

So, how do we practice asking for what we need at work? Here are some tips on how to practice self-advocacy.

1. Get to Know Yourself First

Most self-advocacy articles focus on the importance of speaking up and asking for what you need from others. This is obviously a very important skill, but it’s only half of the equation. The key that unlocks your self-advocacy toolbox starts with you.

The majority of frustrated employees I’ve coached on this topic have no idea what they need at work. Most of the time, they can only communicate their extreme dissatisfaction without pinpointing any solutions.


They are aware they need to speak up at work. However, they have not spent time examining their core work needs.

Self-Advocacy Starts With You

If there is nothing else you remember in this article, commit these next two lines to memory:

Self-advocacy starts with you. You can only advocate for yourself after you identify your own wants and needs.

If you’re unaware that you need a quiet location to work, your out-loud brainstorming teammate will continue to tick you off regularly.

So, how does one begin to unravel the complexity of identifying their own work needs? The key is to get curious and ask yourself some important questions.

Some Questions to Think About

To get started, here are some questions I ask my coaching clients.

  1. Which parts of your work bring you energy? Which parts drain you?
  2. When you get frustrated with your colleagues, what is it over? (e.g., they forgot to take notes and send follow-up items, they didn’t meet a deadline)
  3. How do you prefer to be praised at work? (e.g., in front of everyone at the team meeting, a thoughtful e-mail sent by my manager)
  4. How do you prefer to collaborate with your colleagues? (e.g., you like to brainstorm out loud with everyone, you want everyone to be assigned parts, and then you can check back in on progress)
  5. What do you need to create a healthy work-life flow? (e.g., attending the online yoga class your employer provides, not answering e-mails while on vacation)

Self-advocacy at work requires you to take a hard look at yourself. This self-reflection is my top tip in this article because everything else will flow from it. This important work will lay the foundation for every other tip in this article.


2. Start With the Easy Stuff and Work Your Way Up

Self-advocacy is a skill you must develop over time.[2]

This isn’t a red pill/blue pill scenario like the Matrix. Like most skills, practice is necessary. It is almost impossible to transition from rarely speaking up about your work needs to advocating for a pay raise after reading this article.

Take Baby Steps

Take baby steps. As you scale up the self-advocacy mountain, start with the low-hanging fruit.

Start by brainstorming a list of easier self-advocacy goals. I recommend starting with items that don’t make your hands clammy or your stomach queasy thinking about. This list should include simple tasks that you are fairly confident your manager or colleagues will say yes to.

For example, perhaps you want to join an employee resource group. However, participation in the group requires manager approval. As a high performer who regularly exceeds expectations, you are certain your manager would have no problem with you joining a group. There are also several members on the team who participate.

Or, perhaps you want coaching assistance from the stellar manager on your team everyone raves about. They have casually mentioned to you before how much they are energized by teaching others how to coach.

Bottom Line: This list should consist of items any reasonable manager or colleague would consider. It also doesn’t hurt if you have previous data points to confirm their willingness to help.


Practice With a Work Friend

If the low-hanging fruit list is still cringe-worthy, pull in a trusted work friend.

Self-advocacy makes us uneasy because there is a risk of exposure. Voicing our needs takes courage, and there is a fear of rejection.

Start by practicing with someone you trust and who has your back. Be honest with them about your desire to voice your needs at work more often. Practice role-playing a couple of the conversations together and ask for feedback.

After practicing, create an individual goal to knock out one item per week on that easier self-advocacy checklist. Check in with your trusted advisor, and ask them to follow up with you on how it went.[3]

Over time and with practice, the easy items will steadily decrease in difficulty. Eventually, you will build the muscle memory needed to accomplish those big-ticket items like asking for a raise or adjusting your schedule to part-time.

3. Be Honest About Where You Are

Exceptional self-advocates are neither too humble nor too braggadocio. They know who they are.

They leverage data to better understand their strengths, blind spots, and where they stack up in the job market. They are honest with themselves, and their self-advocacy asks are in alignment with the data they gather.


Get a Better View of Where You Are

To get a better view of where you are, start with job market data.

Understanding the job market for similar roles in your industry is a must for self-advocacy. Whether you want to ask for a salary increase or a title change, data is your friend. It’s important for you to understand what the job market looks like in your area of expertise.

The easiest way to start collecting this information is to pretend you’re job hunting.

Start your search by looking for job openings in companies that are direct competitors of your current workplace (hint: we do this in HR all the time). Make sure you look for roles similar to yours.

Search jobs with similar titles, locations, and responsibilities. After you find complementary jobs, review important things like salary, benefits, remote working guidelines, and scope of responsibilities.

Make sure you look at several companies during your search.

After you’ve completed your data digging adventure, be honest about what you see. It’s easy to become biased during this process.


It’s natural to find job postings that support your self-advocacy point of view. If you’re struggling, my recommendation is to find at least ten requisite job postings that come from ten separate companies.

Compare Your Current Job

After you’ve done your due diligence, compare your current job to the areas you want to advocate for. This type of comparison isn’t meant to be thrown in your manager’s face at your next one-on-one. Instead, it will provide you with a reality check on where you are and the areas where it’s realistic to begin negotiating.

If you’re noticing that most jobs like yours have a higher salary average than your current pay, you could use this information to advocate for a salary increase. Or, if your scope of responsibilities far exceeds most job postings like yours, use this to discuss a possible promotion.

Whatever you do, make sure your manager knows your process. Being thoughtfully prepared demonstrates initiative.

The Bottom Line

Self-advocacy starts with you, but it’s so much bigger. The culture of work is shifting dramatically, and you are a role model for your team.

After you begin modeling important self-advocacy behaviors, don’t be surprised if others start speaking up, too. After all, courage is contagious.

Featured photo credit: Amy Hirschi via unsplash.com


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