Am I being aggressive? The subtleties of assertive behaviour

Abstract painting of two heads: aggressive and assertive behaviour
In 2014, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jill Abramson was dismissed from her role as executive editor of The New York Times. Despite suggestions that it was down to a fractured relationship with managing editor, Dean Baquet, many wondered if it really came down to a gender issue.

Abramson was the first female editor of the New York Times and was known for her fearless and ambitious personality. Many employees said they found Abramson ‘polarising and mercurial‘. This led some to question whether she was actually fired for being too aggressive – too aggressive for a woman, at least.

On the other hand, Abramson admitted earlier this year that thinking about the circumstances around her firing,

‘…helped me sort of understand some of the reasons that both the people who worked above me at the Times and frankly, some of the people who worked for me in the newsroom, found fault with my management style. I think I did not do enough listening… and I regret that.’

So perhaps she was too aggressive, irrespective of her gender. But the fact there is even a possibility that Jill Abramson might have been held to a different standard than her male colleagues points to the dilemma many professional women face: am I being too aggressive?

Aggression vs assertive behaviour

Before we address possible double standards, it makes sense to lay out what we mean by aggressive and assertive behaviour.

Aggressive behaviour omits an essential part of effective communication: listening. Aggression means charging ahead without regard for anyone else. Taken to its extreme, it is an

‘…Overt, often harmful, social interaction with the intention of inflicting damage or other unpleasantness upon another individual.’

Assertive behaviour, on the other hand, means making your point, but not to the exclusion of other people’s opinions. As Wikipedia tells us:

‘Assertiveness is the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive.’

Assertiveness means you listen to other people – really listen, not just pay lip service to them. You take on board their thoughts and feelings, but you make very clear where you stand and why too.

The problem is that, in certain industries, aggression is ingrained in workplace behaviour. ‘Traditional’ sectors such as finance or professional services favour ‘the norm’. And that norm isn’t aggression, but, more specifically, male aggression.

If a woman displays this behaviour it is outside ‘the norm’ and colleagues are likely to see her behaviour as inappropriate.

The likability penalty

The professional world teaches women to adopt ‘masculine’ behaviours to be successful, but then (paradoxically) perceives women negatively for doing so.

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operation Officer of Facebook, calls this the ‘likeability penalty’:

‘What the data shows above all else is one thing: which is that success and likeability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women.’

Unfortunately, this not only penalises women, but also means that some women even express a fear of being assertive, lest colleagues and peers perceive them as confrontational and aggressive.

Assertive behaviour, particularly in the face of disagreement or conflict, can damage a woman’s reputation. However, being less assertive and avoiding difficult conversations actually creates more problems than it solves.

The bias against assertive women, leadership specialist Nicky Little argues, can lead to problematic avoidance behaviour:

‘Steering clear of disagreements and leaving things unsaid creates unnecessary complexity and needless anxiety.’

Practical tips for acceptable assertiveness

It’s not fair that women have to change their behaviour in the workplace in a different way to men, but sometimes it’s necessary. There are specific ways women can communicate to make sure colleagues see their assertive behaviour as acceptable and not aggressive:

  • Give the other party space to have their say.
  • Be overly conscious of the perceived threat you might be presenting. Pre-empt it with phrases like ‘I understand’ and ‘I see what you are saying.’
  • Overplay the ‘I’m listening’ card and over communicate that you have heard what the other party have said.
  • Focus on facts and clarity – keep emotion out of what you say.

This only addresses how the professional world perceives women at work today though. What about tomorrow?

A little self-awareness goes a long way

self-awareness: impression painting to two headsThe most important first step towards changing ingrained behaviours and expectations is to become more self-aware about your own behaviour.

Firstly, male colleagues need to realise when their own behaviour veers from assertive into aggressive and how that can both intimidate some and set a double standard to others. Aggression isn’t a good trait in anyone – man or woman.

Secondly it’s important to recognise that some women are too aggressive. Double standard or no, there are women in the professional world who don’t get the balance right and don’t communicate well.

Finally, everyone needs to be more aware. Aware of both the reactions their behaviour elicits and the reactions they have to others’ assertive behaviour. Self-awareness isn’t just about what you do; it’s about how you see that behaviour in others too.

If you judge people more harshly than you would like people to judge you, take a moment to consider why.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Changing internalised behaviours can be hard. That said, next time a female colleague comes across as ‘bossy’ or aggressive take a moment to consider if she is acting any differently than a respected male peer. Then remember: women are professionals, and they’re entitled to act like it.

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