Assertiveness describes how prepared you are to stand up for your opinions when someone else wants different outcomes (Ames, Lee, & Wazlawek, 2017).
Too little or too much assertiveness, and you have a problem.
Our challenge as managers is to achieve a balance where we can make ourselves heard and achieve our aims even when they are not fully aligned with others.
And yet, the outcome should leave neither party compromised and be in the business’s overall interests.
This article explores the role of assertiveness in leadership and management and introduces techniques to help achieve a delicate balance that avoids both passivity and aggression.
This Article Contains:
The Role of Assertiveness in Leadership
A degree of self-confidence and assertiveness is necessary to get ahead and become an influential leader (Gallo, 2012).
But finding that sweet spot can be a challenge. Too low, and you will never get your way; too high, and you will have more enemies than is healthy.
Assertiveness in leadership is crucial (Folkman, 2013).
- Leaders with good judgment but who lack assertiveness are seen as ineffective.
- Leaders who lack good judgment but are high in assertiveness are rated as better leaders.
- The best leaders are assertive and have good judgment.
The most effective leaders are equipped with a range of skills. They balance out their assertiveness by forming positive connections with people at multiple levels across the organization and communicating clearly and personally (Folkman, 2013).
As a result, we see them as more honest, with a greater degree of integrity. Yet assertiveness requires an understanding of context and the ability to assess your behavior and adjust it accordingly.
You can spot the assertive individual at work. They are quietly confident and neither arrogant nor aggressive. Their body language is assured yet relaxed, making eye contact and maintaining a normal volume when talking.
While they are confident in what they say, the assertive person is calm but firm and ultimately comfortable communicating. Crucially, they do not appear superior, and they talk openly without a hidden agenda (Banks, 2020).
Perhaps most importantly, assertiveness can be learned (Gallo, 2012).
Assertiveness in the Workplace: Your Ultimate Guide
While useful in life, assertiveness is essential in the workplace.
“If you can be assertive at work, you will feel confident knowing that you can handle any situation that presents itself to you throughout your workday” (Banks, 2020).
Yet, speaking up can be challenging during conflict at work, even overwhelming, especially when lacking in confidence (Molinsky, 2017). If it is not natural for you – perhaps you are more used to indirect approaches – it can appear strained or aggressive.
So what impedes being assertive?
Here are some of the typical obstacles faced by people trying to communicate assertively at work (modified from Banks, 2020):
- They don’t know what they want.
- They aren’t sure of their emotions and assume everything is anger.
- They feel like their needs don’t matter.
- They want to be liked at all costs.
- They become flustered and cannot communicate effectively.
- They are uncertain or insecure about their abilities, skills, and talents.
- They have experienced excessive criticism in the past.
- They are scared of saying the wrong thing.
- They are worried about hurting or offending others.
- They are afraid they will be “found out” (imposter syndrome).
- They are afraid of being challenged.
- They fear retaliation.
- They are afraid of what people will think.
It can be a valuable exercise to reflect on each of the above blockers to assertiveness and consider which ones are true for you.
Being aware can help you focus, learn, and develop assertiveness skills.
Assertiveness, especially in challenging environments, has many benefits, including the following:
- Increases self-confidence, self-love, and self-respect
- Increases the effectiveness of communication during conflict or confrontation
- Earns respect from peers
- Enables you to get what you need without trampling on others
- Improves decision making that comes from increased confidence
- Helps you become a better negotiator
- Helps you become a better leader
- Improves positive relationships with your colleagues
Being assertive enables you to communicate skillfully in challenging situations and with difficult people. This is particularly important when you find saying “no” impossible. The “yes” syndrome can be damaging for you and your colleagues.
Sometimes it is okay, and even necessary, to say: This is enough. There are only so many hours in the day, and only so much work I can do. It is not a sign of weakness or being incapable.
Otherwise, there is a risk of burnout, poor productivity, and poor relationships. Letting people know how you feel and what you need provides the opportunity for them to recognize your needs and adjust how they act (Banks, 2020).
The challenge, as in all areas of our life, is balance. There is a happy medium between being too passive – risking being walked over and ignored – and overly aggressive – damaging relationships and appearing unprofessional. Skilled assertiveness can be the difference between achieving or failing to be successful in the workplace.
19 Techniques for Managers
Making the most of assertiveness
Managers who rated highest as leaders used assertiveness alongside other valuable skills (Folkman, 2013).
When being assertive, try to:
- Spend time communicating and connecting with people.
- Provide good, honest feedback, helpfully and fairly.
- Use moral judgment in decision making.
- Be ready for change.
- Maintain excellent relationships.
- Find opportunities to collaborate.
An assertive leader can be highly successful for both themselves and those they lead.
Aligning behavior to context
You must pitch your assertiveness according to the audience and context.
Make sure you understand the environment and tailor your assertiveness and behavior appropriately using the following steps (Gallo, 2012):
- Understand the context.
Consider the context in which you find yourself. How is assertive behavior going to be viewed?
- Evaluate your assertiveness.
Is your style successful? Is your assertiveness too much or too little? Ask people whose opinion you trust.
- Set and stick to goals.
Why are you not speaking up when you should? Why are you holding back? Are there particular situations when you are not coming forward?
- Build relationships.
When we don’t feel comfortable around people, we are often afraid of what others think. Get to know the people you are dealing with over coffee or outside of work. Social barriers may limit your assertiveness.
- Be true to yourself.
While you may be concerned that being more assertive may feel inauthentic, it shouldn’t. You can remain friendly and even develop empathy while being more assertive. The degree and style of assertiveness should be appropriate to the context.
Perhaps more importantly, don’t bully. Assertiveness should never be aggressive; it should be controlled and calm while trying to find a solution that meets both sets of needs.
Our verbal communication can be a clear demonstration of our ability to be assertive. It provides an opportunity to show your capacity to remain calm, be open, and resolve conflict.
Banks (2020) provides several verbal strategies that can help:
1. Set boundaries
It is essential to be clear, both to yourself and others, regarding what you find acceptable.
Setting and maintaining boundaries means that you and the people you are dealing with understand the type of relationship you have and what is acceptable.
For example, you may be prepared to provide coaching to a junior member of staff but clarify that it is for a specific length of time and will not be a session for criticizing colleagues.
2. Say “no”
Most of us find saying “no” challenging, but it is especially difficult when lacking assertiveness.
Yet, as with all these strategies, we can improve it with practice.
If you are asked to do something that you are not comfortable with – perhaps it is against your core beliefs – you can either go along with what is being asked of you or choose to say no.
The latter is the choice of an assertive person. Remember why you are saying no, and make clear the reasons behind your decision.
3. Use “I” statements
The best outcome of any situation is one where both parties leave satisfied, without the need for compromise.
Saying “You do this” or “You didn’t do that” can sound aggressive. Describing how you feel about the situation states your position on the matter while opening up the dialogue.
Try phrases like:
I feel this is the right approach.
I feel we need to consider other options.
4. Express your needs and feelings
Expressing yourself is crucial for adopting assertive techniques and remaining authentic. Tell people what you are looking for or what is not working. Without such clarity, you will sound like you are complaining or appear not to know what you want.
Try to avoid being passive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive; approach situations openly and with diplomacy. This is the most successful way to be heard and understood.
Appearing demanding or aggressive leads others to shut down immediately or respond in the same way.
5. Address people using their name
You will sound more confident if you use colleagues’ names when you are engaging with them.
Addressing them by name shows you know who they are. The listener needs to understand you are engaging directly with them and wish for action.
Much of your communication is nonverbal when being assertive (Banks, 2020).
1. Maintain confident body language
Our body language can have a big impact on how we are perceived.
Facial expressions, proximity when we talk, and standing tall and straight or hunched over are examples of nonverbal communication.
If you look confident, others will see you as self-assured and assertive before you begin to speak.
Picture how a confident person would stand and how they would look when they speak – assertive but not intimidating. Their arms, hands, and gestures are relaxed and comfortable and follow what they have to say.
Their face looks unstressed, friendly, and assured; they appear confident with nothing to hide.
Practice looking confident when you next engage with people. Stand with your shoulders back, chest out, and head up, without appearing rigid.
2. Adjust your speech
Assertive speakers sound relaxed and calm, without seeming unconcerned. They should be loud enough to be heard without sounding like they are shouting. It is a difficult balance that benefits from practice and feedback from people whose input you value.
It’s useful to record yourself to hear how you sound and listen for too many filler words like “um.”
Talking too fast can also be an issue and can cause people to either disengage or be uncomfortable because of your perceived nervousness.
3. Wear the right outfit
How we look can affect how we feel and how we are perceived. This can be increasingly difficult as many environments move towards casual dress; the boundaries for what is acceptable and appropriate become more blurred.
Your decision on what you wear must show your respect for the environment you are in and the people with whom you are communicating.
Putting time and care into how you look can strengthen the message and encourage people to take what you are saying more seriously.
Building Assertiveness at Work: 4 Exercises
No matter how well your assertiveness message is crafted, the recipient may not receive it as hoped.
Ultimately, you can only state your case (and your feelings) clearly and unemotionally. The recipient can’t challenge how you feel, even when they believe you are overly sensitive or misinterpreting the situation.
Practicing the following strategies will help you improve the art of assertiveness.
1. Recognize your degree of assertiveness
It is essential first to recognize your degree of assertiveness (Murphy, 2011). Once you have a baseline, you can understand the changes you need to make.
Reflect on the answers to a series of questions (modified from Murphy, 2011):
- Do you look people in the eye when you are talking to them? Can you recall their eye color or what their glasses looked like?
- Do you project your voice clearly? Are you asked to repeat yourself or speak up?
- Do you speak with confidence? Are your sentences full of “um’s” and “uh’s?”
- Do you stand up tall? Are you slouching?
- Do you feel comfortable around others? Are you relaxed or uptight?
- Can you express how you feel? Do you feel anger, annoyance, or frustration?
- Do you offer your opinion even when it may be unpopular?
- Do you defend yourself when incorrectly blamed for something?
If you answered no to several of the questions, maybe you lack assertiveness. You may be over-thinking or holding back from giving your opinion.
2. Bill of rights of assertiveness
You can begin your transformation by removing some passive feelings of doubt, fear, and guilt that hold you back.
A great place to start is listing a set of rules to shift your mindset (modified from Murphy, 2011):
- I alone have the right to judge my behavior.
- I have the right not to excuse or justify my behavior.
- I have the right to judge whether I am responsible for solving others’ problems.
- I have the right to change my mind.
- I have the right to say I do not know.
- I have the right to make mistakes and take responsibility.
- I have the right only to be responsible to myself and deal with others’ disapproval.
- I have the right to be illogical in my decision making.
- I have the right to say I don’t understand.
- I have the right to say I don’t care (this may be less straightforward in a workplace environment).
“By emphasizing these ‘Bill of Rights’ in your mind, you will begin to understand yourself and the mental walls you’ve created over the years more completely” (Murphy, 2011).
3. Implement an assertiveness formula
Robert Bolton (2012) offers his three-part assertiveness formula.
1. Begin by stating simply and objectively what has happened (or the other person’s behavior).
You should aim to get your point across unemotionally without causing defensiveness.
When you interrupt me during calls…
2. Describe the outcome of their negative behavior.
Explain the problem it is causing for you.
When you interrupt me during calls, I cannot get my point across and share important information.
Your aim is to explain both the cause and the effect.
3. End by explaining how you are left feeling.
Explain how you feel when this happens. No one can refute your feelings.
I feel irrelevant on the calls and angry that no one will listen.
A strong assertive message can get your points across and be well received and effective.
4. Practice assertiveness
Like all skills, assertiveness benefits from practice.
Use opportunities at work to try out your assertiveness; consider:
- How you stand
- Your gestures
- The language you use
- How you speak
- How successful you have been
Try out the techniques and skills outside of work. How could you approach asking for a favor, returning something to a store, or pursuing a good deal on a car?
You will get better with practice. As you see positive results, your assertiveness will continue to grow.
We have many practical exercises to improve your communication and assertiveness skills.
Learning how to recognize and use your leadership strengths can be an excellent way to build confidence and become more assertive.
- Strength Journaling
Use Strength Journaling to increase your awareness of your strengths and become more sure of your potential.
- Identifying Limiting Beliefs About Personal Strengths
Learn to focus on your strengths rather than your weaknesses by using this Identifying Limiting Beliefs worksheet.
- Exploring Character Strengths
Identify, reflect, and exploit your character strengths.
- Assertive Communication
Understand the differences between being assertive, aggressive, and passive in communications, and explore a personal scenario with our Assertive Communication worksheet.
- Communicating an Idea Effectively
Communicating an Idea Effectively is a worksheet containing a valuable set of steps to identify an idea and create a narrative to communicate it effectively.
- 17 Positive Communication Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, this collection contains 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
Too little assertiveness can lead to passivity; too much can lead to aggression.
Despite existing at opposite ends of the communication spectrum, both styles are equally unhelpful in creating and maintaining beneficial work relationships.
Sounding timid and uncertain will not win proposals nor gain respect, and high degrees of assertiveness will cause either avoidance or increased resistance. Ensuring your efforts are well intended and getting assertiveness right at work are crucial to performing any role, yet particularly so for entering and staying within management and realizing your potential.
Indeed, achieving a good balance in assertiveness maintains your sense of control and results in others’ positive evaluation of your leadership, management style, and skills (Ames et al., 2017).
Use the tools and techniques provided to gain greater awareness of your or your clients’ degree of assertiveness and find the appropriate, balanced approach for the situations in which you find yourself.
If you want to know more about building positive relationships in the workplace, we recommend our Positive Relationships Masterclass©. The masterclass is a complete science-based training template for practitioners and coaches that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients improve their personal and professional relationships, ultimately enhancing their mental wellbeing.
- Ames, D., Lee, A., & Wazlawek, A. (2017). Interpersonal assertiveness: Inside the balancing act. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(6).
- Banks, R. (2020). The keys to being brilliantly confident and more assertive: A vital guide to enhancing your communication skills, getting rid of anxiety, and building assertiveness. Author.
- Bolton, R. (2012). People skills: How to assert yourself, listen to others, and resolve conflicts. ReadHowYouWant.
- Folkman, J. (2013, October 10). The 6 secrets of successfully assertive leaders. Forbes. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/joefolkman/2013/10/10/the-6-secrets-of-successfully-assertive-leaders/?sh=2d8becd26668
- Gallo, A. (2012, August 21). How to be assertive (without losing yourself). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2012/08/how-to-be-assertive-without-lo
- Molinsky, A. (2017, August 31). A simple way to be more assertive (without being pushy). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2017/08/a-simple-way-to-be-more-assertive-without-being-pushy
- Murphy, J. (2011). Assertiveness: How to stand up for yourself and still win the respect of others. Author.