For two coaching clients of mine, both female leaders, assertiveness was a real issue, causing difficulties for them and their organizations. Their lack of assertiveness caused different problems: one of them was deemed to be ‘aggressive’; the other was ‘too nice’. In essence, one was considered too aggressive and the other a pushover – both instances made a case for assertiveness.


One client’s unintentional ‘aggression’ engendered negative reactions and feedback from her staff and clients, and undermined morale. She wanted to be get her messages across, change people’s perceptions and improve relationships by relying more on a style of communication that influences and inspires and less on one that ‘commands and controls’.

My other client also faced an assertiveness problem: from the other end of the spectrum. She wanted to please people and protect her reputation as a ‘nice’ person, but she knew that she needed to be more assertive to improve her professional performance, including getting the most from, and developing, her team.

Both were aware of peoples’ perceptions of them – one a ‘tyrant’ and the other a ‘pushover’. Each was concerned about their professional development, as well as their ability to lead their teams and organizations. They wanted to be assertive, but didn’t know how to achieve it.

Whilst assertiveness is an issue for both genders, it tends to be more of an issue for women. It doesn’t seem to be a biological gender difference as Stefanie K. Johnson reports: “a review of studies on levels of prenatal exposure to testosterone found resultant differences in empathy, aggression, and toy preference between males and females, but found no significant differences in dominance/assertiveness or ability.”

Whether it is nature or nurture, a cultural or social construct, more women seem to have problems with assertiveness – although it affects everyone. However, it involves learned behaviors that can be taught and encouraged through coaching.



Aggressive, Passive, or Assertive?

Assertiveness can be a fine line to walk, between aggression and passivity. Clinical psychologist Dr Randy Paterson uses a theatrical metaphor to demonstrate the differences:

“In the passive style, all the world is allowed on stage but for you — your role is to be the audience and supporter for everyone else.

In the aggressive style, you’re allowed on stage, but you spend most of your time shoving the others off, like in a lifelong sumo match.

With the assertive style, everyone is welcome onstage. You are entitled to be a full person, including your uniqueness, and so are others.”


The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of aggression is ‘a forceful action or procedure (as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master.’

Aggression can manifest as anger, unreasonableness – being demanding or commanding, or treating people badly. It suggests a lack of empathy, or a need to exert power or dominance over others.

Aggressive managers say, ‘Get this done. Now.’ (‘I rule. My way’).


‘Passive’ is defined as ‘tending not to take an active or dominant part’, ‘without resistance: submissive’. A passive person might allow others to make decisions they should be making; or is reluctant to speak out and challenge others directly – even if their rights were being infringed, or company values undermined. Not really desirable leadership behaviors!

A passive leader might not speak up, and leave things to others (‘You rule’).


Assertive’ means: ‘disposed to or characterized by bold or confident statements and behavior.’ Assertive people are confident and aware of their rights, but also aware of other people’s feelings and motivations. They will consider how people might respond; be calm and diplomatic, but will also speak out confidently in defence of their rights and values, or against ignorance and injustice.

An assertive leader will say, ‘Can you get this done by Wednesday, please?’ or ‘What do we need to do to deliver effectively?’ (‘We work together, although I lead’).

Striking the balance: keys to assertiveness

Emotional Intelligence Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant, said in an article in Psychology Today, that “emotional intelligence is the key to effective leadership – and marks the difference between aggression and assertiveness”. Being self-aware, in control of your emotions, and respectful of others’ feelings are all important in assertiveness. Assertive leaders express themselves clearly and gauge the reactions of others.

Be clear about your values, rights and boundaries This will help you to stand up for yourself, or your organizational values.  Michael Fertik says, “You don’t need to be severe to be respected, but you do need to hold your organization to certain standards — and you must be firm about people meeting them. Setting rules will help you when decisive action is needed.”

Encourage collaboration and mutual respect An assertive leader does not seek to ‘win’, ‘command’ or ‘get one over’ somebody else. They value themselves, as well as others and have respect for others as equals. Therefore, they encourage a team approach, and believe that other people’s – as well as their own – opinions are valid and deserving of respect. In negotiation, and assertive leader will aim for fair exchange on all sides.

Communicate with strength of voice, tone and body. Assertiveness isn’t just about what you say – it’s the way you say it: how you deliver your words. Consider your body language and tone of voice. Having a strong, stable stance; giving direct eye contact, speaking clearly in a firm (but non-aggressive) tone – all help to show people that you mean business.

Have a strategy To respond assertively to someone you find challenging, Andy Molinsky developed an “assertiveness formula” based on a concept by Robert Bolton (from his book, People Skills):

Start with a short, simple, objective statement about the other person’s behavior — what you’d like to see changed. E.g: “When you interrupt me during meetings”

Describe the negative effect that this behavior has had on you. Explain why the person’s behaviour is causing a problem. E.g. “I don’t get a chance to voice my opinion.”

End with a feelings statement. “I feel marginalized”



Put all together, an assertive statement would be: “When you interrupt me during meetings, I don’t get a chance to voice my opinion, and I feel marginalized.”

Assertiveness is an invaluable life-skill – not only for the office. It has been proven to offer clients much more value than a simply conciliatory relationship does. It offers the key to self-leadership and leadership of others. You will earn greater respect, and get better results.

If you would like to develop your assertiveness to take you, your career, your team and your organization further, simply contact me to discuss the possibilities.

If you would like to, please download my coaching programme brochure – Women’s Leadership Coaching – For Women in Development – specifically designed for women working in global development.

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