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The Balance Between Being Assertive and Aggressive at Work

Posted: 06 April 2018

Maintaining positive workplace relations isn’t always smooth sailing, there will always be someone who has a different opinion to yours, people who are difficult to work with, and people that you just don’t like. Most of us will avoid confrontational situations like the plague, but there are some people who seem to charge into them head-on, revelling in the chance to raise their voice, be antagonistic, and show everyone why, as always, their opinion is the ‘right’ one. These people tend not to be the most popular people in the office, pushing your patience to the limit – but that doesn’t mean you have to stoop to their level when you have a disagreement.

Aggression isn’t good for anyone – no-one likes to be on the receiving end of an outburst, and it doesn’t feel great when you’ve lost your temper with someone either. Worse still, being aggressive and taking the wrong tone at work could jeopardise your job.

Being passive isn’t the answer either though – there’s no merit in letting people walk all over you and just going along with things even if you’re unhappy. This will only lead to resentment and anger, which not only makes for a miserable work life, but can impact your home life too if things are getting under your skin.

So what’s the solution?

Why is it that some people are able to handle these delicate situations with grace and diplomacy, whilst others explode in an embarrassing torrent of rage? Assertiveness is the demilitarised zone between passive and aggressive. It allows you to save face, to disagree with someone without humiliating them, to find a solution which doesn’t leave someone feeling disrespected, worthless or ignored. 

The human ego is fragile, people are full of self-righteousness and no-one likes to be made to look stupid. Communicating in a calm, objective way that leaves people’s pride in-tact is the key to harmonious interactions at work. 

Showing is better than telling, so here’s a few scenarios demonstrating the difference between being aggressive and being assertive: 

1. You’ve asked for a raise and it’s a ‘no’

You may want a raise because you’ve taken on more responsibility recently, because you feel that you deserve it. And this may be true. Which is why it can be hard not to feel angry and upset if your request is rejected by your boss. It’s understandable to feel like this, but lashing out and expressing your true feelings here won’t improve your circumstances at work.

Aggressive response: 

‘I think your decision is totally unfair and I deserve more than this. I’ll be looking for other job opportunities in that case.’

Your boss has made their choice and won’t change because you start throwing your toys out of the pram. And you’ve just ruined your future chance for progression by admitting you aren’t going to stick around. Managers are looking for loyalty and someone who’s a long-term investment that will benefit the business.

Assertive response:

‘I’d be keen to understand what I can do to improve my chances of getting promoted in the future and would appreciate your feedback. When can we revisit the subject of promotion?’

You’ve respected the decision and demonstrated that you want to stay in your role and develop, adding value to the business.

2. A colleague isn’t pulling their weight on a group project

Group projects are always challenging – there’s lots of different opinions flying around and personalities tend to clash sooner or later. Everyone wants it to be successful, but when one person isn’t putting in the same level of commitment as others, it can be frustrating and cause tension within the group.

Aggressive response: 

In front of the whole group, you proclaim: ‘Are you actually going to contribute anything useful to this project? Because as far as I can see, you’re pretty pointless right now and you’re letting the whole team down.’

This is humiliating, belittling and makes the receiver feel utterly worthless – likely to crush a more passive individual, and really get an aggressive character’s back up.

Assertive response:

You quietly take the individual to one side and calmly say: ‘Is everything OK with you? I’m just a bit concerned that you’re not that involved with this project so far, and I wanted to make sure you’re clear on what needs doing? We all really want this project to be a success and can’t do it without your input!’

This approach avoids the public shaming, and shows empathy with a caring approach, giving them the opportunity to explain or rectify the problem whilst saving face.

3. During a team meeting, a more senior staff member suggests a change to process that you’re unhappy with

We’ve all been in meetings where people say things that make us want to roll our eyes, inwardly screaming ‘that’ll never work!’ So do you just sit quietly and stew, or do you speak up and voice your opinion? The latter can be tricky, especially when it’s a senior staff member, but that doesn’t mean you can’t communicate your concerns.

Aggressive response:

‘That’s a ridiculous idea and it just won’t work – no-one’s going to be happy about it.’

No-one likes to be told they are wrong, and claiming to know what’s best for everyone else won’t win you any favours.

Assertive response:

‘I think this is a big decision that requires further thought – I’d like to have a better understanding of how it will impact the wider team before we go ahead with this.’

This shows you’re carefully considering the option, with the team’s best interests at heart.

There’s a fine but definite line between being assertive and being aggressive at work. Being able to express an opposing opinion without engaging in an argument is a skill to be mastered, but the reward is a more positive workplace for everyone. If you’re able to keep your cool when conflict arises, you’ll be setting a great example to lead others by. Everyone wants to be happy and minimise uncomfortable situations, and finding the balance between passivity and aggression can achieve this. Be confident enough in yourself to say ‘yes’ when you mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when you mean ‘no’.

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