The Importance of Assertiveness in the Modern Workplace

How do you rate yourself as a communicator? This is a question we ask many of our clients especially if they are in a people-facing role on a day-to-day basis.  People facing roles include team leadership, management, training, HR or customer service. These roles collectively require you to be a master communicator and the skill of assertiveness is one that is assumed in these situations. But our assumptions are not always accurate and like any of the so-called soft skills assertiveness is a skill that can be learned and fine-tuned over time.  So, what is assertiveness you might ask? According to Ames, Lee, & Wazlawek (2017), Assertiveness describes how prepared you are to stand up for your opinions when someone else wants different outcomes. Having a definition is great but most of my clients will then ask what being assertive looks and feels like?  Too little assertiveness may lead people to see you as a pushover and too much assertiveness may cause people to feel unsafe or threatened.  For instance, leaders with good judgment but who lack assertiveness are seen as ineffective; while leaders who lack good judgment but are high in assertiveness are rated as better leaders. So where is the ‘sweet spot’ and how can you be consistently assertive in your people facing role?

Why are assertiveness skills so Important?

In your day-to-day interactions, you want to find the balance to make yourself heard so that you can achieve favourable outcomes even when you are not fully aligned with other people’s points of view. True assertiveness means that neither party is compromised, and a win-win outcome can be achieved.  

There are four key behaviours to consider:

  • Passive behaviour
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Assertive behaviour
  • Passive/aggressive behaviour

We demonstrate all of these behaviours from time to time for instance if you are a tri-athlete your instinct to win may be aggressive – great in the sporting arena, not so great in a work environment. At work, such behaviour might be seen as selfish, rude and controlling capable of shutting down a conversation. Equally, there are times when it’s ok to sit back and be passive but this type of response is counter-productive in decision making or conflict resolution scenarios at work.

How do I improve my Assertiveness Skills?

In attempting to improve your assertiveness skills you should always identify mutually beneficial outcomes that align with the overall goals and interests of your business. Assertiveness requires you to sharpen your communication and interpersonal skills and in doing so you will automatically earn the respect of your colleagues. Assertiveness and confidence go hand in hand, and these are skills and attributes that need to be learned and refined over time. Once you become aware of your assertiveness strengths and weaknesses then you can begin to communicate more readily in a way that is healthy and respectful of others and yourself. The first step in improving assertiveness is to assess your typical behaviour preferences.  Some practical advice for improving assertiveness:

  1. Spend time communicating and connecting with people

Real connectivity with your people takes time and effort. Taking time out to know and understand the people you work with pays back in dividends. This helps to build trust and promotes psychological safety which in turn creates a landscape where you and others can speak candidly and freely to each other without feeling threatened or compromised – normalise open and transparent communication amongst your team members and colleagues.

2. Demonstrate empathy and humility when giving and receiving feedback

Once people realise that you are open and genuine you have already made progress. One of the more challenging aspects of being assertive is your ability to demonstrate empathy and humility and in doing so you show others that you are as open to receiving feedback as you are to giving feedback to others.

3. Promote a growth mindset and show others that you are open to change.

According to Carole Dweck, there are two types of mindsets a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. If you have a growth mindset you are open to change, flexible and innovative. If you have a fixed mindset, you are likely resistant to changes, a traditionalist and less tolerant of new ways of doing things. In the modern workplace, practically the only thing we are guaranteed is change – COVID has taught us so much with regards to how we do things and even more about our adaptability as humans and indeed as employees. If your people recognise your growth mindset, they will be less likely to resist when you present innovative or contentious ideas for open discussion (assuming that you demonstrate empathy and humility as outlined above).

4. Find opportunities to collaborate

They say that practice makes perfect and just like any self-improvement goal assertiveness takes time to master.  In building assertiveness, it is vital to seek out opportunities to practice.  Asking a trusted person for mentorship, coaching and guidance can be an excellent way to develop these vital skills.  Having someone who will candidly feedback on your performance at a meeting can be extremely powerful on your assertiveness journey.

5. Be aware of the ripple effects of emotions

Awareness of yourself and others is key to developing your assertiveness skills. Emotions have a key role in communications whether at work or in our personal lives.  If we consider Maya Angelou’s famous quote: “I will forget what you said, I will forget what you did, but I will never forget how you made me feel”, this confirms that thinking before acting or speaking is a most undervalued asset in workplace communications. Just like the toothpaste when it’s squeezed from the tube (it can’t be put back in), it’s the same with words or deeds – once expressed they can’t be taken back. Even more significant is the ripple effect that occurs when words are spoken in haste – emotional expression in the form of words spoken can be interpreted in the same way as Chinese whispers – not everyone hears them in the same way.

7. Learn how to say no respectfully

Learning to say no without feeling guilty is a skill in itself – it’s a small word with a big impact.  In my work, I have met those who are masters at saying no and I have met others who can’t say no at all. The secret is to identify situations where saying no is a challenge for you.  Once you can identify these situations the next step is to figure out the best ‘no’ responses in these situations. In my work with clients, most of them tell me that when they mastered saying no in previously challenging situations their interpersonal relationships changed dramatically for the better. If ‘no’ is difficult for you, try saying:

  • Can you check back with me later?
  • Leave it with me and I’ll get back to you
  • I appreciate your interest but I can’t do that right now
  • I can’t do what you are asking but here is something that I can do (name it)
  • There is something more pressing that is taking up all my time right now 

8. Create an action plan

If you have decided that you need to be more assertive in your work or personal life – take action today!  Make an action plan and outline the following: What goal do you wish to achieve? Why do you need to be more assertive? What are the types of situations that require you to be more assertive? Who will help you to achieve your assertiveness goals? When will you practise your assertiveness skills? How will assertiveness help you to be a better employee, supervisor, or manager?

In summary, assertiveness is a skill that needs to be practised and will lead to successful outcomes for you and those you interact with at work.  It takes motivation, work and commitment and your efforts will be met with positive, respectful and mutually beneficial conversations.  Assertiveness leads to authentic, transparent and mutually agreeable outcomes and minimises the need for conflict and lack of commitment to common goals. 

If you would like to learn more about our workplace communications workshops you can visit our website at or if you would like to schedule a consultation, please feel free to contact me on 086 3897409. 

Janet Tumulty – 7th June 2022