What is Assertiveness?

The ability to express your thoughts without sacrificing your rights sounds simple, but in practice lies at the heart of many communication and interpersonal struggles in the workplace. Assertiveness awareness and training was once at the forefront of organisational psychology research and despite falling out of vogue still offers itself as a valuable tool for any employee.

Defined as the ability to convey your thoughts, beliefs and feelings in a manner which actively asserts your position and rights, assertiveness training has been shown to dramatically improve communication and relationships with colleagues[i]. From a cognitive perspective, assertiveness training retrains your thought pattern. When prompted to provide a response, our brains consider one passive option and one assertive option[ii]. People who have undergone assertiveness training are more likely to provide an assertive response and are better able to convey it.

Confusion is common surrounding assertiveness as the trait is often conflated with being over dominance or authoritarianism, giving assertiveness a bad name. This is in fact not the case, overly dominant team members are characterised by a tendency to infringe on the rights of others whilst upholding their own. Workplace assertiveness actively discourages this practice.

Women are also actively discouraged from engaging in the principles of assertiveness. Furthermore, those who display high levels of assertiveness are seen as deviating from their prescribed gender role as passive, warm and caring[iii]. Women may therefore avoid engaging in the practice and rob themselves of the benefits associated with increasing assertiveness.

Why You Should Care

Scored along a continuum rather than as a discrete trait, both women and men who are more assertive generally enjoy;

  • An increased sense of self-efficacy (self-belief) in the workplace
  • A more proactive position in interpersonal communication (particularly in negotiation!)
  • A tendency to avoid passive and apologetic language which may sacrifice position in the workplace power dynamic
  • An increased resilience for negative behaviours in others such as undermining and manipulation

Getting Started

Developing assertiveness is an ongoing process, and although formal training can take weeks to complete, there are a few simple practices which can help increase it.

  1. Awareness

Your rights and freedoms as an employee lie at the heart of assertiveness training. In order to be able to advocate for and defend your professional rights, you must first become aware of what they are. These can generally be clarified by company policy as well as by talking to a supervisor or manager.

  • Push-Back

Creating professional boundaries is vital. There is no obligation to complete tasks over and above what is defined by your contract although sometimes this may not feel like the case. Setting boundaries can help manage workload and stress. This point can be used in conjunction with practicing expressing your feelings and positive ‘I’ statements, both vital in assertiveness training. 

  • Rome wasn’t built in a day

As previously mentioned, assertiveness should be continually developed over your professional life. Start small and ease into larger scale topics by implementing manageable changes. Making a rule to avoid taking passive positions and preceding reasonable requests with ‘sorry’ or ‘when you get chance’ is a great place to start.

Contact Individual & Organisational Development to help assist you develop your assertiveness, click here: https://www.iod.com.au/

To join a From Mates to Manager workshop view our website https://www.iod.com.au/workshop-and-events/

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Written by Lewis Cockram.

  1. [i] Heimberg, Richard G, & Becker, Robert E. (1981). Cognitive and behavioral models of assertive behavior: Review, analysis and integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 1(3), 353–373. https://doi.org/10.1016/0272-7358(81)90011-8
  • [ii] Pearsall, Matthew J, & Ellis, Aleksander P. J. (2006). The Effects of Critical Team Member Assertiveness on Team Performance and Satisfaction. Journal of Management, 32(4), 575–594.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206306289099
  • [iii] Pfafman, Tessa M, & McEwan, Bree. (2014). Polite Women at Work: Negotiating Professional Identity Through Strategic Assertiveness. Women’s Studies in Communication, 37(2), 202–219. https://doi.org/10.1080/07491409.2014.911231594. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206306289099