Monday, April 19, 2021

The power play between ‘aggressive’ and ‘assertive’

By Emily D. Tisdale

If you’re lucky, you’ve had the experience of working for a great boss.

You know the one: She fostered a sense of teamwork. She held you accountable and made you believe in yourself at the same time. She appreciated your skills and talent, but pushed you to continuously improve. She talked the talk and walked the walk.

Unfortunately, these types of leaders are few and far between. More often than not, many of us have had the misfortune of working for a bad boss.

So, what makes a bad boss? They’re usually either too passive or too aggressive. Sometimes, they’re a curious combination of both.

The passive ones are ineffective. They struggle to manage their employees and become victims of manipulation by stronger members of their team. They avoid conflict, which then just breeds more conflict. They don’t communicate clearly. Their staff is simply not motivated to work hard.

Yet the aggressive ones aren’t always effective, either. Their bull-in-a-china-shop style of management is intimidating and, sometimes, downright bullying to their team. They’re rude rather than respectful. And their employees are motivated by fear instead of camaraderie.

One thing remains true regardless of the variables that come into play (passive or aggressive, boss/coworker/subordinate) with our relationships with others: It can be confusing to decipher the appropriate balance between assertiveness and aggression in the professional world, especially when you’re feeling the burn to perform.

But knowing and applying the difference can make a big impact on your professional success and your satisfaction on the job — no matter your rank on the company payroll.


At first glance, being assertive and being aggressive may look the same, but their tone and application are widely distinct. Sometimes the confusion gives “being assertive” a bad rap.

People who are assertive exhibit self-control. They communicate clearly, and they speak with authority and confidence. Assertive people foster collaboration, creativity and risk-taking by demonstrating respect for others. They pursue their goals with a drive that ultimately cultivates that same kind of respect from the people with whom they work.

Aggressive people, on the other hand, are characterized by their intimidation of others and the negative feelings they provoke in the people with whom they work. Aggression often comes across as selfish, bullying, insulting or manipulative behavior. People who are aggressive may move ahead in their jobs, but they leave a trail of broken morale and bitterness behind them as they go.


Each of us has valuable ideas, thoughts and feedback that should be shared. Depending on our work environment, though, it may not always be easy to make your voice heard.

But foregoing sharing that information simply because it’s difficult or uncomfortable to get our message across is a disservice not only to yourself, but also to the team around you. So, speak your piece … strongly and effectively.

It’s times like this when many of us wonder: When being assertive and being aggressive can ultimately get us what we want, why does it really matter?

In a word: integrity.

Whether you sit at the top of the company hierarchy or on the bottommost rung, your ability to assert yourself appropriately will play a big role in how others respond to you on the job. It takes emotional intelligence to be assertive, but it takes very little to be aggressive — and emotional intelligence is the ultimate people skill.

If business is all about relationships, then good relationships are the foundation of good business. In business, as in life, you’ll be more likely to retain beneficial relationships (and less likely to burn bridges) if integrity ranks high in people’s concept of you.

When the going gets tough, assertive people know that “what benefits you, benefits me.” In other words, managing a challenge by being assertive versus aggressive can influence the outcome as well as the reputation you build along the way.

And that’s an achievement in “soft skills” that’s worth adding to a resume.

Emily is the CEO of LEAP for Women.


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