Are You Assertive or Aggressive? What Works Best When
Leading Your People?
by: Herbert Greenberg Ph.D.
In tough times, leadership is key. And what makes leaders effective?
Their potential to communicate. But, communication comes in all shapes
and sizes. Assertiveness and aggressiveness are often used to describe a
forceful leader. In describing someone who is strong and forceful, you
might be inclined to say something like, “She is a very assertive
and aggressive individual.”
It is not unusual to use the words assertive and aggressive
interchangeably - as though they were variations on a theme. Or perhaps
you might think of aggressiveness as simply assertiveness with the
volume turned up. But, that really is not the case.
Someone who is assertive comes across as being positive,
self-assured, and confident. On the other hand, someone who is
aggressive may start fights or quarrels. That actually makes them sound
like polar opposites, doesn’t it?
So, just what is it with assertiveness and aggressiveness?
Are they related? Similar? Or completely different?
Let’s take a moment to explore these two personality traits a
little closer to see just what is underlying each of them. If there was
a goal to meet along a path of obstacles, a truly assertive person would
speed along the path, overcoming each of the obstacles until the goal
was met. An aggressive person, on the other hand, would get so involved
in knocking down the obstacles that the goal would become secondary, if
not completely lost.
Assertiveness, then, is an essential part of every effective manager
and salesperson. That quality enables someone to take charge and to
explain calmly and clearly how to do things. Assertive people can be
forceful without necessarily being demanding. They do not need volume to
get their points across. In short, assertive people do not have the
emotional charge that is generally associated with aggressive
Aggressiveness, meanwhile, comes with a jolt. If combined with poor
empathy and low abstract reasoning ability, you can end up with a
firecracker. Such individuals just barge ahead, repeating mistakes, over
and over, a little more forcefully each time.
Aggressive people are demanding and have absolutely no trouble
criticizing others. In fact, they get a bit of a kick out of telling
others off. Upsetting the apple cart is one of their favorite
So, how do these two qualities play out in a business
An assertive leader will calmly and deliberately walksomeone
through the steps of accomplishing a task, then trust them to get
the job done. An aggressive leader will be unlikely to give such clear
instructions, then will be overbearing, placing unnecessary pressure on
those working on the task, and is likely to lose control when things
don’t work according to their plan.
Does this mean that assertiveness is all-good and
aggressiveness is all-bad? Not quite.
Individuals, who are very assertive, but not very aggressive, can be
inconsistent, particularly when conflict arises.
Because assertive people do not necessarily want to shove their ideas
down someone else’s throat, they will strongly put forth their
point of view, but if the other person is not buying it, an assertive
person might just shrug and walk away. Because they are self-assured,
assertive individuals will not feel a need to push their point any
further. They will make their point clearly, then let it go at that.
There are some cases where the way has to be pushed open, where a
stalemate arises, and without a slight shove in the right direction,
nothing will change.
In such instances, an individual who has tempered aggressiveness can
appropriately apply it – moving an otherwise intractable situation
forward. However, whether in management or in sales, such instances
should be rare in order to be effective. Because, when aggression
becomes the status quo, trust is lost, and with that, effectiveness goes
out the door.
The best combination, we have found, in sales as well as management,
is someone with a high level of assertiveness backed up by a moderate
amount of aggressiveness, which they can keep in check.When they need
it, such individuals can turn on the juice. All in all, they relate well
to others because they are consistently positive, and their supportive,
self-assured approach is comforting, if not contagious.