Nutshell: Mastering assertiveness as a leader

Written by
Future Talent Learning

03 Feb 2020

03 Feb 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

How can we enhance innovation and productivity while respecting other people and staying true to ourselves?

It’s disconcerting to learn that the US National Transportation Safety Board has traced the cause of some plane crashes to co-pilots whose deference to their pilot in an emergency meant that they didn’t feel able to challenge them or make their suggestions firmly enough, even in extremis.

For example, an investigation into the 2013 Asiana Airlines accident in San Francisco revealed that a co-pilot’s efforts to warn his captain against trying to take off in icy conditions were insufficiently insistent. As a result, the plane hit a bridge and plunged into a river, killing three people and injuring a further 181.

While the airline’s chief executive admitted that Koreans tend “toward a patriarchal culture and many pilots work and fly within the strict military order”, contradicting the boss can be difficult for many of us, no matter the seriousness of the situation. But being assertive, the ability to stand up for ourselves or other people in a calm and positive way, is an important skill to develop if we want to build good relationships at work.

Assertiveness is often wrongly confused with insubordination or rudeness. In fact, assertive self-expression is direct, firm, positive and, when necessary, persistent. It isn’t about being pushy, annoying or manipulative. Rather, it’s intended to promote equality in person-to-person relationships so that two-way communication can flow. 

In an article on leadership, Scott Edinger, founder of the Edinger Consulting Group, states that more harm is done not when people are too assertive, but when they’re not assertive enough:

“At least you know what pushy people think, but those who don’t assert themselves can be keeping vital ideas hidden,” he argues.

Assertive communication is also essential to acting with integrity. If we all sit on our opinions rather than speaking up to question a decision that risks violating a company’s values, or going against the best interests of its people, life can quickly become uncomfortable for everyone. And there are times when we’d all like to give a colleague a piece of our mind to release an ongoing frustration, whether it’s directly work related or that annoying thing Dave in Accounts insists on doing with the teaspoons.

Assertiveness also creates opportunities for better staff and client relationships, by

            …fuelling innovation

The most innovative leaders often have to challenge the status quo and push back or openly disagree with more senior managers. The ability to be assertive is essential to this sort of challenge, otherwise new and potentially better ideas may never see the light of day. Plus, even when innovation and change are generally viewed as positive, we are still likely to encounter some kind of resistance en route. 

            …creating value for clients

In their blog and book The Challenger Sale, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson state that assertiveness creates more value for clients than conciliatory relationship building. This is founded on research that shows the most successful sales professionals are the ones who challenge their clients to see problems they hadn’t anticipated. 

            …fostering teamwork and collaboration 

For teams to thrive, team members must be able to assert less popular points of view, and smart team leaders will create safe environments where this can happen.

So, to paraphrase the football player and manager Bill Shankly: [assertiveness] is not just a matter of life and death; it’s much more important than that.

The assertive communication style – and its notable rivals

Of course, being assertive comes more naturally to some of us than to others, depending on who we are and the kind of life experiences that have shaped us. For every person with a burning passion to be heard, there is another who will do almost anything to stay quiet and avoid conflict. And these are just some of the factors at play in how we communicate.

When the personal flourishes are stripped away, we largely fall into four main styles of communication in the workplace: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive.

Passive communicators typically keep their opinions to themselves or try to support every piece of input in the discussion, which is effectively the same. When they do speak, they tend to avoid making eye contact, to shrug their shoulders and say things like “yes, I suppose that’s all fine with me” or “I don’t really have an opinion on this”.

This way of communicating often reflects a desire to keep the peace, but in the workplace, it can read as weak and uncaring. Also, when people aren’t able to express their grievances, they tend to mount up and can come out in explosive outbursts, causing shame and guilt. In this way, passive communication can swiftly flip to aggressive communication in the same way that ‘victims’ can become ‘persecutors’ within the Drama Triangle.

Aggressive communicators have no problem expressing their opinions openly, without hesitation and often loudly. When they do this, they may use phrases such as “you’re just plain wrong!” or “why can’t you get this?” while also making intense eye contact, pointing their fingers or aggressively ‘standing their ground’.

This style may arise from a person’s desire to be (seen as) in charge and for others to comply with their demands instead of questioning them. But while it is often healthy to voice our opinions, doing so in an aggressive way can leave others feeling intimidated and inferior, undermining the psychological safety which enables people to speak openly, take risks and contribute valuable ideas.

Some aggressive communicators view themselves as ‘frank’ or ‘direct’ rather than domineering. If we feel we might fall into this category, we should pay attention to how others are reacting to our style of communication and take our cue from their responses. Even if we are more frank than aggressive, it’s important to be able to flex our approach, swapping ‘directness’ for something more appropriate when dealing with colleagues who are not the same as us.

Passive-aggressive communicators may speak as if they don’t care about something (passive), but in a way that is indirectly angry (aggressive). They may mutter things to themselves, give someone the silent treatment or talk to people outside of a situation to avoid addressing it head on. When they do talk to others directly, they may say quite hurtful things, such as “we can do this your way, but, just for the record, I don’t think it’s going to work” or “I think you did a good job, but they may not think so”.

Often, people behave in this way because they feel powerless, stuck and resentful or are worried what others might think of their opinions; they may also be afraid of entering into direct conflict. Because they’re not expressing their needs, those needs are probably not being met, which only compounds the problem. Note, however, that passive aggression is still aggression: the passive-aggressive communicator is a persecutor in victim’s clothing.

Assertive communicators generally express their thoughts in a polite manner that is considerate of other people’s opinions. They respect all values, thoughts and ideas, and speak in a calm voice while making non-threatening eye contact. This way of communicating is productive because it encourages two-way conversations, listening, feedback and information flow. Assertiveness also adds power and conviction to a message and enables a leader’s voice to be heard. This equates to the ‘dult’ role in transactional analysis.

To develop a more assertive style we can look ahead to a forthcoming conversation and plan our approach by:

  • going over our objectives and perspectives (what outcomes would I like to achieve and what is my point of view?).
  • considering the key points we intend to cover.
  • formulating an opening statement and assertive statements to bring into play.
  • thinking about any issues or feelings that might arise and how to handle them.
  • reflecting on our own needs and rights – and those of others involved in the conversation.
  • working on our body language to ensure that it supports our assertive stance.

Practising our approach in advance can help us to get the best out of the encounter. After the discussion, it’s also important to reflect on how we handled the situation. Did we achieve an assertive style and meet our objectives – and if not, where did we go wrong? In this way, we can hone our methods and keep learning from our experiences and outcomes.

Communicating more assertively at work: a simple formula 

While we should all aspire to be assertive communicators, many of us struggle to be assertive enough – and even the most naturally assertive among us may become timid in certain situations, such as around those we most admire.

Andy Molinsky, professor of organizational behavior and international management at Brandeis University, notes that speaking assertively can feel awkward and unnatural to those more inclined to voice their frustrations in an indirect or passive manner. To overcome this, he has created an assertiveness formula, inspired by the book People Skills by Robert Bolton but adapted for the workplace. He suggests the following:

1. Start with a short, simple, objective statement about the other person’s behaviour; what you’d like to see changed. 

  • For example: “When you interrupt me during meetings…”
  • Or: “When you take sole credit for the work we’ve done collaboratively...”

The goal here is to get the other person’s attention without causing them to be defensive or to immediately disagree or disengage.

2. Describe the negative effect that this behaviour has had on you; why it is causing a problem.

  • For example: If the first part of the formula is “when you continually interrupt me during meetings", we might then add, “I don’t get a chance to voice my opinion.”
  • Or: For “when you take sole credit for the work we’ve done collaboratively”, we might then add, “I don’t have a chance to highlight my role and contribution.”

The goal here is to build a cause-and-effect logic, linking an objective statement of behaviour to the impact that behaviour has had on us.

3. End with a feelings statement; how the person’s offending behaviour has not only negatively impacted your actions but also hurt your feelings.

  • E.g. “I feel marginalised.”
  • Or: “I feel underappreciated.”

While the other person may feel surprised – and even uncomfortable – to hear this, Molinsky asserts that it’s hard to refute a person’s feelings and that this makes the message as a whole that much more powerful. 

It’s good to track specific problematic behaviours and perhaps note them down in a diary so we have examples to hand if needed. It’s even harder to argue with facts than feelings – and with evidence, no one can dismiss what we’re saying on the grounds that we’re “irrational” or “hormonal”. 

Sorry not sorry; the particular problem of passive-aggressive colleagues

Q: How many passive-aggressive people does it take to change a lightbulb? 

A: Don’t worry. I’ll just do everything myself.

In every workplace, there’s probably one person who consistently talks over everyone else in meetings; the one who pokes holes in our initiatives and who, when we try to address it, says everything is fine and that we are over-reacting.

It’s enough to drive even the most level-headed of us to distraction. So how do we address it?

Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict offers the following tips on dealing with a passive aggressive colleague:

Don’t be tempted to fight fire with fire
If we grow angry, the other person can end up blaming us, which is a release of their own anxiety. We need to remain calm. It’s also wise to ask ourselves if something in our own behaviour is contributing to the dynamic. It might also help to reality-check our perceptions, if only to reassure ourselves that we haven’t gone crazy. Amy Su, co-author of Own the Room, suggests asking something along the lines of: "I was wondering how so-and-so’s comment landed with you. How did you interpret that?” Enlisting the help of colleagues to model the honest and direct interactions we want to have can also help.

Consider what’s motivating the behaviour
Those who routinely act in a passive-aggressive way may be potential allies who simply don’t know how to get their point across or who are afraid of conflict. Annie McKee, founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute, says that passive-aggressive people “often make the flawed assumption that others should know what they’re feeling”. This can cause a rift to occur – and to keep on widening. We are all guilty of this behaviour on occasion, most often in our personal relationships, which explains why we sulk. While it’s not down to us to diagnose our colleagues’ problems, it can help to recognise this behaviour for what it is: an unproductive expression of emotions that the person is unable to share constructively.

Focus on the content, not the delivery
Tricky as it is, we must try to see the situation from our colleague’s perspective. What is the underlying perspective or concern somebody is attempting to convey with their snarky or hurtful comment? Not everyone likes (or knows how) to discuss or express what they think, but by focusing on the underlying business issue, we may be able to move on to addressing the actual problem. Phrases such as “you made a good point in that exchange we had the other day. Here’s what I heard you saying…” may provide the conversational ramp that helps passive-aggressive people to talk more clearly about their real concerns.

Take practical steps that benefit everyone  
Rather than spending time fuming when someone agrees to a plan publicly and then fails to see it through, we can take positive steps to address the problem. For example, we can offer to take notes in a meeting, documenting who is accountable for accomplishing each task. This removes the safety net of excuses. And with nowhere to hide, everyone has to follow through on their commitments. It makes for a more productive workplace as well as minimising the amount of steam forced to exit through our ears. 

Whatever else we do, accusing the person of being passive-aggressive is a no-no, as this is likely to put them in a more defensive and angry position. Instead, we should keep calm, listen to understand rather than to judge, follow the above principles and try applying the Molinsky 1, 2, 3.

What assertiveness looks like is personal, not pre-determined

Following her pitch-perfect response to both the COVID-19 crisis and a terrorist attack in New Zealand, prime minister Jacinda Arden’s assertive leadership was widely praised. Yet it hasn’t always been this way.

As she explained: “One of the criticisms I've faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

Kim Scott’s Radical Candor concept also advocates challenging directly and giving guidance and feedback in a way that’s kind, clear, specific and sincere – qualities synonymous with being assertive.

The approach highlights the dangers of obnoxious aggression (being assertive to the point of brutal honesty); ruinous empathy (sparing someone’s short-term feelings, but failing to tell them something essential), and manipulative insincerity (offering insincere praise or flattery to a person’s face and harsh criticism behind their back). These are useful warnings, and a reminder that when we set our own dial for assertive communication, we mustn’t forget our moral compass – to care as well as to challenge.

Respecting other people’s thoughts and opinions while expressing our own, speaking calmly while making eye contact, listening and offering thoughtful feedback; these are all forms of assertive communication with a healthy dose of humanity built in. 

Just as it takes vulnerability be a courageous leader (and vice versa), so too it takes empathy to be an assertive, rather than an aggressive, leader. Assertiveness is a state we should all be in if we are to achieve true influence in the workplace. But you don’t have to be pushy to enter.


Test your understanding

  • Describe the four different communication styles we encounter at work and the benefits of adopting an assertive style.  
  • Explain how we can deal with passive-aggressive communicators in the workplace.

What does it mean for you?

  • Reflect on your own interactions at work and the communication style you default to. Might it be time to make a change?
  • Practise using Molinsky's assertiveness formula to challenge a colleague’s undermining behaviour.


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