Assertion skills


What is assertion?

Many people have a view that assertion is all about getting your point across in a confident and determined way. And whilst that may be true to a certain extent, it's only part of the story.

A person who is truly assertive has earned the right to express their view with confidence, not least because he or she recognises his or her own responsibility to allow others to do the same. To express your view with confidence and deny others the opportunity to express theirs is the behaviour of a bully. That's called aggression, not assertion.

Assertion in the workplace

Assertion in the workplace therefore differs little from assertion in any other walk of life. The danger is that in the workplace, someone who is in a more senior role may think that they have a right to express their view with confidence but deny that right to those who are more junior. That would be a breach of a fundamental value that all workplace leaders should embrace - that everyone has a right to an opinion and a right to be heard.

'To be passive is to let others decide for you. To be aggressive is to decide for others. To be assertive is to decide for yourself.'
Edith Eva Eger

The Choice: Embrace the Possible

Assertion or aggression?

Lion or a pussycat cartoon

Copyright: <a href=''>andrewgenn / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

In my experience, those in managerial or leadership roles who behave like bullies are almost invariably covering up a fundamental lack of confidence and ability on their own part. They know deep down that they are missing the principles or skills of a true leader and compensate by behaving in an aggressive manner. Conversely, those who are comfortable in their own skin and apply a sound set of principles in their working life do not need to get aggressive - they are happy reasoning and debating with others without resorting to bullying tactics.

The three things every good manager should be able to say

There are three phrases that, more than any others, mark out the confident manager or leader. Only those who are guided by a strong set of principles can say them. They are:

  • I don't know
  • I was wrong
  • I need help

Assertion and decision rights

The tasks of a leader or manager at work is likely to include that of decision making. Recognising the rights of others does not mean that the leader should not make decisons, but he or she must expect those decisions to be questioned by others. This should be welcomed, and a good leader will want to surround him or her self with those who have the confidence to question and challenge colleagues and 'the boss' before binding decisions are reached. The assertive leader or manager will therefore insist on argument and debate within the leadership team. The poor leader will prefer a weak group that doesn't challenge.

Of course, once the debate is over and a decision has been reached, everyone on the leadership team has a responsibility to get behind it and make it happen - irrespective of their position during the debate.

Putting assertion into practice

If you want to be an effective workplace leader or manager, you need to understand assertion and what it implies. In the section The Bedrock of Great Leadership we talk about the need to think carefully about your value system and work on the beliefs and principles that will drive your behaviours. Training yourself to recognise and respect the rights of others is the first, essential step in developing truly assertive behaviour. It's also a sign of Emotional Intelligence - the critical ability to recognise and control your own emotions and empathise with others.