Assertiveness vs Agressiveness at work

A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with a very experienced HR-director. She is working for years in a big multi-national company. During that meeting, she expressed her concern regarding the hiring process in her company but also in other multi-nationals. She told me that more and more people were hired who tend to or clearly were aggressive. Aggressive towards colleagues but also as a leader towards members of their team. We concluded that this trend is also recognizable in our daily lives. When we look around us we see in surrounding countries like Poland, Hungary Turkey and Russia leaders who act aggressive towards anyone who are not agreeing with their ideas and decisions. In Western-Europe we also see powerful populistic parties who are acting aggressive. And in the same list we can put the current president of the United States.

But I also see that often assertiveness and aggression are mixed up, so I asked her if she really means aggressiveness. And I got a very clear ”yes”. And at first glance, I can understand that companies hire aggressive people. They are in the beginning great at taking charge, making decisions, and being activators. They move people and are starting things. They are very productive and, if they are hired as a leader, they increase the productivity from the team dramatically. They are also practical, looking for simple solutions, which can be implemented easily. They will get things done! On the other side, they don’t accept debate and they want it to be done on their way. It’s with them always a ‘I win – You lose’ situation.    

The problem starts when they don’t get what they need, and that is loyalty, control, recognition and results. If they don’t get it enough, they will become toxic for the organization. They change from aggressive to passive-aggressive, and then the problems really start. Because their behaviour and attitude will spread and within no-time a big part of the company will be infected.

But how you can recognise passive-aggressive behaviour in the workplace? Here are some examples. On the surface passive-aggressive persons are supportive and will agree fast, but behind the scenes they backstab, undercut and sabotage. They constantly state that you can trust them on their words, while their actions consistently show that that is not true. They withhold important information from others, in order to make themselves appear more important and more valuable. They often use sarcasm or humour to make fun of someone else, so they hide behind an ‘I was just kidding’ attitude. 

When we look to Gallup’s state of the workplace, we see that 36% of the people is actively disengaged from their work. That are the passive-aggressive people. They are not all hired like that, for sure not. But they became passive-aggressive because of the toxic effect aggressive persons in the company. It is also a fact that companies went bankrupt because of the passive-aggressive culture.  

What I want to point out clearly that it is maybe interesting to hire aggressive people, but when you don’t give what they need and also don’t help them with connecting to people, the positive effect is only for a short term. On longer term, the damage they cause is much worse.

On the opposite, you can say that in successful companies, assertive employees and leaders go hand in hand. Shanon Anthony Bower describes the difference between assertive and aggressive people as follows: “The basic difference between assertive and being aggressive is how our words and behavior affect the rights and well-being of others”.

But what behavior you can see from an assertive person? The most important that they have is the basic attitude of “we can all win”. Ideas, opinions and feelings are expressed in an open honest manner and both positive and negative elements can be discussed. Assertive people work on facts, not opinions and emotions. To work to find a compromise or solution with respecting of everyone else. The positive effect of assertive people you can see also back in their teams. The team gains more confidence in themselves because they are listened to and are an integral part of the team. The team has and shows confidence in the assertive persons and the ability to make sound judgments. The team knows what they can expect from each other. And everyone will “put the cards on the table” knowing that their opinion will count. Assertive persons take care of a win-win situation. And is that not what we all actually want? This in stark contrast of the aggressive employee who wants to win to all cost. So, if you don’t want to have a headache on the future, you know now who to hire.


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