How Can I Be More Assertive at Work without Being Aggressive?


Aside from our family and personal life, the place we spend the most time is at work. This article is devoted to healthy, positive assertiveness in the workplace.

Whether you encounter situations that require you to be assertive on a daily, monthly, or occasional basis, this article will help you deal with handling work-related situations properly. Unlike our personal lives, it is important to be able to clearly ask for what you want and need and express what you do not want and need in a calm, professional manner. Work is not the place for emotionally charged, negative communication. It is important, particularly at work, that we remain as composed as possible when we communicate. That is not to say you never will become emotional in a work environment.

People can and do get angry, frustrated, disappointed, excited, or elated at work, sometimes to the point of crying. However, showing extreme negative emotion on a regular basis will not help you get what you want and need from superiors or even colleagues. Frequent aggressive, hostile outbursts may intimidate people into giving you what you want temporarily or shock them into silence. Likewise, weepy drama may grant you a sympathy win, but in the long run you will not be viewed as a valuable, level-headed employee if you use and abuse these tactics. You may even lose your chance of promotion or your job. Making enemies or having superiors view you as the emotional one will not help you achieve much in the end. A good idea is to find one or two co-workers with whom you can form friendships. Not only will this make work more enjoyable, but you also will be able to vent any negative emotions to them rather than to superiors. Likewise, you can be a listening ear for them when work gets difficult.

Appropriate and Inappropriate Communication in the Workplace

Not everything is written in stone. The points offered below are simply guidelines for how to communicate in most workplace situations. However, if your work environment is more casual, then you should follow the culture that already has been established. For instance, you may work in a highly emotionally charged field, and demonstrative outbursts may be more frequent and acceptable. You may work for friends or family, and so the communications are more typical of those that happen in personal situations. Use common sense. No matter where you work, though, being negatively explosive frequently with your superiors or colleagues will not be appreciated.

Appropriate communication with superiors, co-workers, and colleagues includes the following:

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Assertiveness Training course?
  • clear, direct communication and knowing what you want and need going in;
  • being firm and having conviction;
  • honest, straightforward requests;
  • presentation of facts, with evidence if possible;
  • professional discussions and exchanges;
  • polite communication;
  • appropriate humor;
  • positive speech;
  • discussions concerning co-workers, superiors, etc., as they relate to the job.

Here are some communication tendencies to avoid when speaking with superiors, co-workers, and colleagues:

  • mumbling;
  • yelling;
  • threatening;
  • disrespectful or surly speech or behavior;
  • lewd comments or jokes;
  • racial jokes or comments;
  • sexist jokes or comments;
  • sexually harassing comments;
  • private or personal information, unless it directly involves an issue relating to work, such as needing time off, etc.
  • gossip about superiors or co-workers.

Appropriate communication with co-workers and colleagues who are friends may include the following:

  • complaints about job issues and issues with superiors;
  • clarification about job issues and instructions from superiors;
  • discussions about the job;
  • sharing personal information, such as weekend plans, relationship discussions, discussions about family, children, home life, etc.;
  • discussing very personal information when the friendship is a close one.

Below are communication tendencies to avoid when speaking to co-workers and colleagues who are friends:

  • yelling;
  • threatening;
  • disrespectful or surly speech or behavior;
  • lewd comments or jokes;
  • racial jokes or comments;
  • derogatory comments;
  • sexist jokes or comments;
  • sexually harassing comments;
  • nasty, negative, or potentially harmful gossip about co-workers, superiors, etc.

Constructive Criticism on the Job

Most people have at least a little difficulty dealing with criticism, with good reason. The very word criticism suggests disapproval and negativity. Some common responses to criticism include anxiety, difficulty breathing, crying, anger, frustration, shock, lowered self-esteem, depression, confusion, disregard, or belligerence. Many companies have dropped the phrase "constructive criticism" from their corporate vernacular in favor of the term "feedback" because this is more in line with what a superior is trying to convey.

However, not all companies or bosses acknowledge the difference between the two or see the benefit of providing accurate advice aimed at improving performance rather than pointing out flaws in a non-constructive manner. To help you better accept feedback from any superior, here are some tips that can be used to avoid feedback fallout and get the most out of what your boss is telling you:
  • Keep an open mind; you may learn something about yourself that you did not know.
  • Maintain an attitude that is interested in self-improvement.
  • If the feedback is ambiguous, ask for clarification.
  • If the solution is not obvious, ask for methods of improvement.
  • Write things down or ask for a copy of your performance review.
  • Ask for a timeline for improvement, such as the next review, several months, etc.
  • Thank your superior for his or her input.

Avoiding Passive Aggression at Work

Always be clear and direct about your needs and wants. If you think you are in a frame of mind that is overly emotional, stop talking. Wait until you are able to be calm, firm, and direct. If you can do so, speak up right away about a problem or issue. Do not let problems fester and grow larger. Do not stifle frustrations and minimize their impact on your ability to do your job. On the other hand, do not make every small issue a catastrophe. For now just realize that you should not blow small problems out of proportion.

Here is a very simple example: If a co-worker, colleague, or superior takes your pen, do not blow it out of proportion. You do not have to assert yourself over isolated, minor incidents, even if they annoy you. However, if a co-worker continually takes your pens, you need to say something, such as, "Did you know that you can get pens from the supply room?" or simply, "Please stop taking my pens."

If you are a problem-solver, you might grab a few extra pens while you are in the supply room and give them to the culprit with these words, "Here, I got these from the supply room for you. I need my pens to do my work. In the future, if you need pens, please do not take all of mine. You can get pens in the supply room." Try to be good-natured about it if possible. You also could physically show them where they can get pens if they need them and say, "If you need pens, you can get them here." If a superior continually takes your pens, get yourself some extras and put them in your drawer, or get him or her some extras and put them in his or her office.
You have become passive-aggressive if you begin hiding pens to keep a co-worker from taking them or if you start going into his or her office or cubicle and taking supplies in retaliation. This type of behavior will create a hostile confrontation eventually.
Being assertive with co-workers and superiors can be tricky. It is important to avoid blowing up minor, isolated incidents and to be direct, clear, and firm when dealing with situations in which you do need to assert yourself. Be honest. Be good-natured if you can and try humor when appropriate to keep things from being overly tense.