Monday Mornings with Madison

Passive, Aggressive or Assertive?

In the business world, one of the most desirable personality traits is assertiveness.  Sales managers revere assertive salespeople… those who show a bold forcefulness in the pursuit of a sale.  Employees are applauded for being assertive in problem solving and thinking out-of-the-box.  Leaders are acclaimed for their hands-on, assertive management style.

Within the spectrum of forceful behavior, assertiveness is considered the middle ground between aggressiveness (too much force) and passivity (not enough force). But how does an executive, manager or entrepreneur achieve just the right balance of assertiveness?  Is there a perfect degree of assertiveness that is right for all people, all positions and all situations or is it more subjective?  And can one’s natural level of assertiveness be improved or adjusted as needed?

A Matter of Degrees

Given the competitive, dog-eat-dog nature of business, it is no surprise that many people cannot differentiate between assertiveness and aggressiveness.  For many, they are the same thing.  In fact, though, they are not the same.

When assessing the level of forcefulness, the children’s fable of Goldilocks and the Three Bears may provide an apt analogy.  When Goldilocks went into the Bears’ cottage, she found the first bowl of porridge was too hot.  The second bowl of porridge was too cold.  But the third bowl of porridge was just right.  When it comes to forcefulness (in one’s personality and behavior), the goal is to adjust to the amount that is ‘just right.’  Let’s start by understanding the degree of forcefulness that differentiates passive, aggressive and assertive behavior.


Passivity is perhaps the easiest to define.  A passive person is one who doesn’t speak his mind or express his opinion.  Fear of reprisals, reluctance to rock the boat, a desire to please others, and a lack of confidence are the primary reasons for passivity.


An aggressive person is one who not only expresses his opinion, but then tries to impose his view on others without concern for their views or opinions. The aggressive individual will go beyond expressing his views and will disrespect the views of others.  He expresses his own needs in an overbearing tone, interrupting or talking over others if necessary. Workplace issues arise when one or more aggressive people get into power struggles, become entrenched in a single position and step all over each other.


An assertive person will express his views but will also encourage others to do the same.   He lets people know where he stands and what he needs in a kind, direct and flexible way and then works with others to find solutions that work for everyone.

An assertive person speaks his mind without disregarding the opinions of others or becoming overbearing.  He can maintain eye contact without appearing to glare or intimidate.   An assertive leader is able to ask for what he needs and makes his position clear without being insolent

Adjust as Needed

Indeed, like so much in life, personality traits are not static.  For example, most people are neither total introverts nor complete extroverts.  They are usually degrees of each depending on their mood and situation.   Even the most naturally outgoing person is likely to be more subdued and self-contained on his first day at a new job than he would be at a celebration dinner with lifelong friends.  The volume and intensity of a personality trait, and the related behavior, is adjusted up or down – like the volume setting of a radio – to suit the circumstances.

Likewise, how a person’s personality traits are perceived by others is also subjective, based on the observer’s own personality and experience, as well as the situation.  It is also influenced by the observer’s preconceived social values, cultural norms and even geography.  For instance, a waiter who is friendly and takes time to chat with customers might be perceived as laid back and easy-going by vacationers at a Caribbean beach resort but that same waiter might be seen as lazy or unmotivated by busy executives dining at a busy Manhattan restaurant.  Indeed, when it comes to personality traits, we all continually adjust the ‘volume’ according to the situation.  That said, a person can only adjust the ‘volume’ of his personality traits somewhat, and even then, the person’s behavior will revert back to his natural level eventually.  For example, a very outgoing person may be a bit more reserved his first few days at a new job but eventually his naturally gregarious personality will bubble up as he gets used to his surroundings.  The same is true of assertiveness.  A naturally passive person can make efforts to be more assertive in a given situation, but will likely revert back to his natural level of passivity once the circumstances pass.  Over time, though, a passive person can learn to be more assertive, especially as he enjoys the benefits that come from being more assertive.

9 Benefits of Assertiveness

In terms of forcefulness at work, all employees – from entry level staff to the top brass – should aim to demonstrate that happy place of assertiveness between passive and aggressive behavior.  There are many benefits to individuals who practice assertiveness.  Behaving assertively at work allows one to:

  1. Clearly communicate one’s vision and goals
  2. Reduce confusion and inefficiency caused by misunderstandings
  3. Motivate others to rally around an idea or program
  4. Eliminate the meetings, tough decisions, and backpedaling that is the typical result of trying “keep the peace” rather than be assertive
  5. Strengthen relationships
  6. Reduce stress
  7. Improve self-esteem
  8. Earn the respect of others
  9. Increase success

10 Assertiveness Strategies

Given the benefits of assertive behavior, are there strategies to improve one’s level of workplace assertiveness?  Indeed.  Here are a few.

  1. Tell coworkers or colleagues what you need from them and let them do the same.
  2. Tell people what you need early in the conversation rather than after the fact.
  3. Be specific about what you want to happen.
  4. Be kind and remain calm when asking for what you need.
  5. Allow other people the same amount of time to describe their needs.
  6. Try not to crush or minimize other people’s perspectives.
  7. Don’t get too entrenched in only one outcome (yours).  Keep an open mind.
  8. Invite others to comment on how your needs affect them.
  9. Allow others to assert themselves.
  10. Compromise on your needs and meet people halfway.

Implement these strategies and then adjust as needed according to the situation!

Quote of the Week

“Being assertive does not mean attacking or ignoring others feelings. It means that you are willing to hold up for yourself fairly-without attacking others.” Albert Ellis

© 2012, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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