Updated: Feb 27
Are you assertive? How hard is it for you to say no? How do you communicate with your staff? Can you delegate, set expectations, and hold people accountable? A supervisor who can’t be assertive will end up being managed by their staff, whether they’re trying to or not.
Most people don’t understand what assertiveness is. They think it’s about telling people what to do or getting their way. I was coaching a student who had problems over-committing and expressing her option. When I asked her what she thought assertiveness was, she said “being bossy.”
At its core, assertiveness is simply advocating for yourself – your thoughts, needs, and wants. You are in control what you will and won’t do. Likewise, other people are in control of what they will or won’t do. That means if someone asks you to do something, it is your choice whether or not to do it. Conversely, you can ask someone to do something, but it’s up to them whether to do it. Yes, there may be consequences, but ultimately it comes down to making a choice.
If you’re being passive – which includes feeling like you can’t say no – you’re operating from the belief that other people are in control of your life. I’m sure you can think of examples at work where you felt like couldn’t say no. After all, it’s your job to do what your boss tells you, right? To a certain degree, yes, to keep your job you need to fulfill certain expectations. That being said, how many times have you agreed to do a task, be on a committee, or lead a project because you couldn’t have a conversation about how whether you can realistically balance doing this new thing? If you’re a supervisor, this can include not being able to tell your team you need them to do XYZ, so you end up doing everything yourself.
If you’re being aggressive, you’re operating from the belief that you can control others – aka make them do what you want. When you’re being aggressive, you ignore other peoples’ opinions or needs; use honesty as a weapon – “I’m just being honest, if you can’t handle it that’s your problem;” and are quick to escalate discussions into arguments. Ironically, aggressive people act like this because they don’t feel like they’re in control of their life, but unlike a passive person they direct this frustration and fear outward with anger instead of inward.
Then there’s passive-aggressiveness. When you’re being passive-aggressive, you resent the fact that you don’t think you have control of your life but rather than exert active control – aka be assertive – you are hostile on the DL. You act pleasant and agreeable on the outside, but you’re seething on the inside. You do things like “forget” to follow through on thing or agree to things you have no intention of doing (or plan to have an unexpected emergency that prevents you from doing it). If you’re in the passive-aggressive zone, rather than be upfront about what you need, you manipulate people, i.e. “Oh you guys are going to lunch? That sounds fun. I guess I’ll just stay here;” or “No, I don’t mind working late, my daughter will have other recitals.”
Assertiveness is the only healthy communication style. It’s being direct and clear about what you need from others and what you’re willing to do (or not do).
The good news is that assertiveness is a skill. Many people believe assertiveness is like a talent – some people have it and some don’t. Anyone can learn how to become more assertive. The only reason you’re not assertive is because you were never taught to be. You might have to work a bit harder to undo some bad habits, but you have the power to learn how to be assertive now.
If you’re looking for a good way to start, my favorite book on the topic is “The Assertiveness Workbook” by Dr. Randy Paterson. He goes into how your beliefs and environmental factors might be barriers to being assertive. Remember the student I mentioned earlier who thought assertiveness = bossy? Turns out she was very opinionated when she was a child, so her parents told her that no one liked bossy people. As a result, she decided to just stop voicing her opinion altogether. This book looks at what might be holding you back and gives you opportunities for reflection and practical steps to make changes in your life.
Looking at assertiveness with a Strengths lens is also incredibly beneficial. Some talents are more prone to present obstacles to being assertive. People with Harmony are notorious for “avoiding conflict at all costs.” Other talents like Adaptability or Responsibility can lend themselves to being passive as well, if you don’t have assertiveness skills to support them. Likewise, people with Command or Self-Assurance can fall on the aggressive side of things. Learning how to be more assertive is a great investment in your talents that can keep you out of the basement – aka using your talents in unproductive ways – and help turn your talents into Strengths. This is especially important if you’re a supervisor.