BEING ASSERTIVE AND PROACTIVE

I'd probably be a little bit firmer about standing up for myself and not be so accommodating.

That's not being aggressive, or nasty, or pushy, or masculine or anything like that [at all].

Why is assertiveness important?

 

Assertiveness is an important skill to master. In a correlational study, students  with high assertive reported lower levels of anxiety and demonstrated higher academic performance [3]. Similarly, another study [4] found significant positive correlations between assertiveness and both academic performance and self-esteem [5]. Assertiveness may lead to greater self-esteem through being more prepared to tackle everyday challenges and recover from setbacks. This leads to optimism, positive feelings about the self, and increased life satisfaction.  

 

Assertiveness is also crucial for team performance. Assertive team-members are an asset: they share their opinions with others in a persuasive manner [6], facilitating the communication process within the team [7]. This can create more effective team meetings, which can positively affect organizational outcomes, such as through improvements in team productivity and greater organizational success [8].    

 

However, individuals who act assertively may be viewed as thinking highly of themselves [9]. In this way, assertive people can be perceived as having extremely high self-esteem, which might be negatively viewed as arrogance, self-centredness, or egotism [10]. Assertiveness has also been negatively linked to relational outcomes. Assertive people are seen as less likable and friendly [11], and they are more likely to elicit conflict with their conversation partners [12]. Similarly, people that are too assertive may suffer at work due to being seen as having a ‘negative’ personality; for example, they may not get along well with others or come across as hostile [13]. This might impact their opportunities for promotion and development. In sum, the research shows that assertiveness is important for performance and being an effective team member. But it can hard to be assertive in a way that is seen positively by others, meaning it is an important skill to develop. 

Are there gender differences in assertiveness?

Research has found gender differences in assertiveness through the words men and women use to communicate [14]. Men tend to use assertive speech, which is used to advance one’s personal agency in a situation. In contrast, women prefer affiliative speech, which is used to affirm or positively engage with someone else.  

 

Gender differences in assertiveness are not only found in speech, but also in behaviour. Research has found that, overall, men tend to show more assertive behaviours than women, such as stating an opinion or refusing an unreasonable request [15]. Women who act assertively at work may be seen as behaving in a dominant way, a trait which is viewed as masculine. Because they are violating the female stereotype of submission, they face backlash in the form of being seen as bitchy and aggressive [16]. (Click here if you want to read more on the backlash that women experience). Leadership traits that are considered to be appropriate for women are more “feminine” traits, such as having excellent social skills, being sensitive, and being emotionally available for others [17]. The subtle social pressure of having feminine traits encouraged but masculine behaviours viewed negatively means that female leaders may feel that speaking up isn’t a good idea.

Yet, women can learn to perform assertiveness in ways that are productive and comfortable. In a study from 2015, female participants in semi-structured interviews described how they negotiate the tension between perceptions of professional assertiveness and gender-appropriate politeness [18]. Women appeared to strategically enact assertiveness. They consciously considered gender, recognising that they had to walk a fine line between minimizing their feminine strengths and not behaving too similarly to male leaders. They considered the relationships in their workplace, determining the needs of others, and selected appropriate communication strategies (e.g., assertive vs polite) for different contexts. Finally, they considered what aspects of their identity they needed to highlight in order to achieve their goals.   

 

Assertiveness can also play an important role in negotiations. A study of negotiating tactics found gender differences in assertive bargaining behaviours [19]. When women show assertive bargaining behaviours on one’s own behalf (self-advocacy context) they violate gender roles, experiencing negative social consequences (backlash) as a result. However, when women act assertively on behalf of another person (other-advocacy context), their behaviours are perceived as congruent with gender norms (i.e., communal femininity). So, strategically negotiating gender role expectations can help women obtain favourable outcomes. 

What is the difference between assertiveness and proactivity?

 

Proactivity involves self-initiated, future-focused, and change-oriented behaviours [29]. Someone who is proactive scans for opportunities, shows initiative, takes action, and perseveres until he or she reaches closure by bringing about change [30]. Three broad categories of different forms of proactive behaviour have been identified:

  • Proactive work behaviour [31]: individual suggestions and implementation of change;

  • Proactive strategic behaviour [31]: includes behaviours such as strategic scanning [31] and issue selling [31] to improve fit between the organization and its external environment;

  • Proactive person-environment fit behaviour [31]: proactive behaviours that improve fit between the individual and their work environment e.g., job crafting [32] so that the role is focused on the individual’s areas of interest.

Proactive behaviour has been linked to individual outcomes (e.g., job performance, well-being, identification), team outcomes (e.g., team effectiveness), and also organizational outcomes (e.g., organizational performance) [32]. Importantly, whether proactive behaviour leads to positive individual outcomes is dependent on various moderators, for example the appropriateness of the proactive behaviour. If someone takes charge in an inappropriate way, supervisors may perceive him/her negatively.

 

Proactivity can be triggered by three motivational mechanisms representing “can do”, “reason to”, and “energized to” processes [29]. The “can do” pathway argues proactivity is dependent on whether an individual feels capable of being proactive. The “reason to” pathway explains proactivity is dependent on whether an individual has some sense that they want to bring about a different future. The “energized to” pathway emphasizes individuals’ positive affect to foster their proactive actions. Dispositional (e.g., personality) and situational antecedents (e.g., job characteristics) and their interactions shape these different motivational forces.

Previous research has shown that proactive individuals are more favourable perceived by others. For example, proactive people are more likely to be viewed as being future leaders [33], and they are more likely to receive dispositional attributions [34][35]. In other words, if a proactive individual performs a good deed, this is perceived as a product of their goodness of character rather than resulting from external factors.

Can assertiveness be increased?    

 

Yes it can! Assertiveness training programs can increase self-reported assertiveness in students [20], and reduce adolescent anxiety, stress, and depression [21]. In the workplace, assertiveness training helps develop high reliability organizations (HRO) [22]. HROs are organizations that operate in complex, fast paced, and ambiguous environments. They constantly face complex risks, but succeed in maintaining a high safety record by being adaptive. Assertiveness training emphasizes and teaches employees how to clearly and concisely communicate, a necessary skill to acquire HRO status. 

Practical tips to be more assertive and proactive

 
Strategies for becoming more assertive

 

According to the Assertiveness Workbook, being assertive requires you to reveal your attitudes, preferences, ideas, and opinions. To help you learn how to openly express your opinions, they offer the following strategies [23][24]

Own your opinion

Be clear about what you think or feel. 

  • Say: “I don’t feel comfortable with this behaviour” rather than “other people don’t like your behaviour”.  

  • Self-disclosure: Disclose information about yourself – how you think, feel, and react to the other person’s information.  

  • Feel free to say no. You can say this without adding layers of excuses and apologies. You don’t have to apologize for having an opinion. 

  • If you don’t feel confident, try rehearsing your opinion. Aim to be relaxed before you begin.  

  • Be persistent and repeat what you want without getting angry, irritated, or loud.   

  • Avoid fogging. Do not deny any criticism and do not counter-attack with criticism of your own.  

Strategies for becoming more proactive

 

Business Collective has published the following steps that can help you become a more proactive person [36]:

  • Realize that it’s about you
    Nobody else is going to solve your problems.

  • Be solution-focused
    Focusing on things that are out of your control is a waste of time.

  • Be accountable

  • Use SMART goals
    Goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

  • Make your own luck

  • Be consistent
    Take steps every day to steadily move toward your goals.

  • Find the right people
    Surround yourself with driven people.

  • Be humble and honest

The self-regulatory model of proactivity identifies four distinct elements that individuals iteratively focus on in order to be proactive effectively [37]. These four elements are:

Envisioning

Setting a

proactive goal

Planning

Preparing to implement proactive goal

Enacting

Implementing

proactive goal

Reflecting

Engaging in learning processes concerning

the outcomes of

proactive goal.

Your proactivity goals should be generated and implemented carefully in order to be meaningful and sustainable [31]. “Wise” productivity includes the following three elements:

  1. Consideration of context

    The proactive behaviour has to “make sense” within the situation.

    Example coaching question: Would this proactive goal make a meaningful long-term impact?

  2. Consideration of others
    Also consider your change from the perspective of others.
    Example coaching question: Have I incorporated others’ interests into this proactive goal?

  3. Consideration of the self
    Try to identify one specific task/responsibility to avoid feeling overwhelmed with commitments.
    How can I do the change without draining all my time and energy?

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