The ability to be assertive is an essential aspect of being a professional. For example, expressing an opinion on matters in your area of expertise, making well-informed contributions to workplace discussions and speaking up when you have knowledge to contribute all require assertiveness on your part. Applied skilfully and at the right times, assertiveness conveys confidence and competence and earns you the respect of others at work. Assertiveness is also good for the organisation because it gets things out in the open where they can be discussed and dealt with, even when they are the source of disagreement.
Aggression on the other hand has no place in a professional's portfolio of skills. It damages working relationships, undermines productivity and generally causes offence.
Professionals must know the difference between assertiveness and aggression and make sure that they become known for their capacity to be assertive when necessary and never aggressive. This knowledge becomes even more significant when professionals move into management roles. Guiding staff about how and when to be assertive and providing unambiguous feedback to any who show signs of aggression are important aspects of a manager's work. Aggression in the workplace is associated with bullying and harassment and can lead to employers being liable under occupational health and safety legislation.
Assertiveness vs aggression
A person makes a strong statement that something is true and comes across as confident in stating that position. Are they being assertive or aggressive? The answer is that it could be either; it depends on how the statement is made and on how the person making the statement is perceived by others. It's not necessarily what you say but how you say it that makes the difference between being assertive and being aggressive.
A person speaking and acting assertively is likely to be making eye contact with the people they want to influence, is clear and specific in what they say, uses facial expressions that match their message and tends to use ‘I' rather than ‘you' language. On the other hand, an aggressive manner is evident when a significantly raised voice is accompanied by hostile body language and intimidating ‘you' language.
A person behaving assertively is firm and shows respect for others. They listen attentively as well as having their say and they seek a win-win outcome. Aggression also stands firm but in a way that is disrespectful of others. When a person is being aggressive they tend to talk over others as if what that person has to say is unimportant. Aggression is satisfied, even pleased, with an ‘I win, you lose' outcome.
There are times when people doing their best to be assertive are judged by others to have been ‘too aggressive'. This is often associated with circumstances in which a person has misjudged what it takes to come across as a competent professional in a particular setting.
For example, an experienced asset manager made a career move from the corporate sector into the not-for-profit sector with an affordable housing association. From working in a predominantly male environment she was working mostly with women. All her new colleagues had developed their careers in the community sector.
She quite quickly became aware that her forceful, direct and candid interpersonal style which had worked well to date was interpreted as overly aggressive” by her new colleagues. Whilst she was confident that her personal values were well aligned with those of this community-based organisation she realised that some adjustments to her habitual working style would be necessary in order for her to fit into the unfamiliar culture.
What's involved in being assertive?
Professionals need to not only know how to project assertiveness but also how to be perceived as assertive without aggression. Paying attention to the following will help you develop or improve your assertiveness.
- Show respect for others. It's the first step in earning the right to be assertive at work. Showing respect can involve hearing others' views and making sure you understand their perspective even if you don't agree with it. Being polite is an important part of showing respect.
- Speak your mind. Assertiveness is about expressing an opinion or stating facts with the intention that they will help advance your own and others' work. If you find yourself holding back on relevant facts or opinion you should ask yourself why. Showing respect for others at work (see 1 above) includes making available to them information that might assist them – whether or not they will be happy to hear it!
- Get your timing right. It can make all the difference between been seen to be pushing your option at the expense of hearing others' and being respected for expressing a well-thought-through helpful opinion from which others can benefit. Assertiveness works best when it is preceded by the hard work of developing understanding and getting your facts straight.
- Value the diversity around you. This means acknowledging that your ideas and opinions are just one perspective. Where possible incorporate recognition of diverse views when you express your own. When others' views have informed your own make sure you acknowledge this.
- Seek feedback about how you are perceived from a trusted colleague or a mentor. This will provide valuable input to fine-tuning your style. Aim to solicit feedback as soon as possible after an occasion on which you intended to be assertive. Rather than asking a question that calls for a ‘yes/no' answer such as ‘Was I assertive enough?' try asking an open question such as ‘What did you observe about my approach?'.
- Pay attention to the social dimension of work relationships because it helps you to build trust with colleagues. When colleagues trust each other professionally they can speak their mind confidently issues get dealt with and everyone benefits from diverse perspectives.
When you are in a line management role you can use the above tips for coaching and mentoring staff in how to be assertive without risk of being seen as aggressive.
A useful way to test whether you have been assertive in a particular situation or whether you risk being seen as aggressive is to ask yourself the following questions:
- How well did I understand the other person's perspective on the topic at hand before asserting my own views?
- Would they feel that I understood them?
- How well informed were the views I expressed?
- Did I use a conversational tone or was my voice raised?
- Did I maintain people's attention?
- How did I feel physically – relaxed and open or tense?
- What would my body language have conveyed to a casual observer?
- Did I speak my mind clearly?
Looking for more ideas?
For readers with an interest in extending their reading about the topics covered in this title the following articles are available on the website:
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and team dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (http://www.fourleaf.com.au/). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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