The Role of Assertiveness in Leadership

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D.024-02-2021 /

A degree of self-confidence and assertiveness is necessary to get ahead and become an influential leader (Gallo, 2012).

But finding that sweet spot can be a challenge. Too low, and you will never get your way; too high, and you will have more enemies than is healthy.

Assertiveness in leadership is crucial (Folkman, 2013).

  • Leaders with good judgment but who lack assertiveness are seen as ineffective.
  • Leaders who lack good judgment but are high in assertiveness are rated as better leaders.
  • The best leaders are assertive and have good judgment.

The most effective leaders are equipped with a range of skills. They balance out their assertiveness by forming positive connections with people at multiple levels across the organization and communicating clearly and personally (Folkman, 2013).

As a result, we see them as more honest, with a greater degree of integrity. Yet assertiveness requires an understanding of context and the ability to assess your behavior and adjust it accordingly.

You can spot the assertive individual at work. They are quietly confident and neither arrogant nor aggressive. Their body language is assured yet relaxed, making eye contact and maintaining a normal volume when talking.

While they are confident in what they say, the assertive person is calm but firm and ultimately comfortable communicating. Crucially, they do not appear superior, and they talk openly without a hidden agenda (Banks, 2020).

Perhaps most importantly, assertiveness can be learned (Gallo, 2012).

Assertiveness in the Workplace: Your Ultimate Guide

Assertiveness in Leadership

While useful in life, assertiveness is essential in the workplace.

“If you can be assertive at work, you will feel confident knowing that you can handle any situation that presents itself to you throughout your workday” (Banks, 2020).

Yet, speaking up can be challenging during conflict at work, even overwhelming, especially when lacking in confidence (Molinsky, 2017). If it is not natural for you – perhaps you are more used to indirect approaches – it can appear strained or aggressive.

So what impedes being assertive?

Here are some of the typical obstacles faced by people trying to communicate assertively at work (modified from Banks, 2020):

  • They don’t know what they want.
  • They aren’t sure of their emotions and assume everything is anger.
  • They feel like their needs don’t matter.
  • They want to be liked at all costs.
  • They become flustered and cannot communicate effectively.
  • They are uncertain or insecure about their abilities, skills, and talents.
  • They have experienced excessive criticism in the past.
  • They are scared of saying the wrong thing.
  • They are worried about hurting or offending others.
  • They are afraid they will be “found out” (imposter syndrome).
  • They are afraid of being challenged.
  • They fear retaliation.
  • They are afraid of what people will think.

It can be a valuable exercise to reflect on each of the above blockers to assertiveness and consider which ones are true for you.

Being aware can help you focus, learn, and develop assertiveness skills.

Assertiveness, especially in challenging environments, has many benefits, including the following:

  • Increases self-confidence, self-love, and self-respect
  • Increases the effectiveness of communication during conflict or confrontation
  • Earns respect from peers
  • Enables you to get what you need without trampling on others
  • Improves decision making that comes from increased confidence
  • Helps you become a better negotiator
  • Helps you become a better leader
  • Improves positive relationships with your colleagues

Being assertive enables you to communicate skillfully in challenging situations and with difficult people. This is particularly important when you find saying “no” impossible. The “yes” syndrome can be damaging for you and your colleagues.

Sometimes it is okay, and even necessary, to say: This is enough. There are only so many hours in the day, and only so much work I can do. It is not a sign of weakness or being incapable.

Otherwise, there is a risk of burnout, poor productivity, and poor relationships. Letting people know how you feel and what you need provides the opportunity for them to recognize your needs and adjust how they act (Banks, 2020).

The challenge, as in all areas of our life, is balance. There is a happy medium between being too passive – risking being walked over and ignored – and overly aggressive – damaging relationships and appearing unprofessional. Skilled assertiveness can be the difference between achieving or failing to be successful in the workplace.

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