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. 

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.  

What is the difference between assertiveness and proactivity?

 

Being proactive is about "making things happen". 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]. Being proactive often requires assertiveness. 

 

Three broad categories of different forms of proactive behaviour have been identified:

  • Proactive work behaviour [31]: making suggestions and introducing new ideas in your local work team or unit;

  • 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 you and your environment, such as by job crafting [32] so that the role is focused on the individual’s areas of interest, or negotiating a better deal with your supervisor.

Proactive behaviour has been linked to individual outcomes (e.g., job performance, well-being, career success), team outcomes (e.g., team effectiveness), and also organizational outcomes (e.g., organizational performance) [32]. For example, research shows that when people behave proactively, they are more likely to be promoted and earn higher salaries.

 

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, that is, their confidence. The “reason to” pathway explains proactivity is dependent on whether an individual has some sense that they want to bring about a different future. Most people are proactive when they have an internalized and intrinsic motivation for the topic - in other words, proactivity comes from 'within', rather than external pressure. The “energized to” pathway emphasizes individuals’ positive affect to foster their proactive actions. 

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.

Strategies for becoming more proactive

 

Enhance your proactivity - your ability to "make things happen" - by:

1) Building your "can do" motivation. You are likely to be proactive when you have confidence in the situation, and when you feel your ideas will be heard. Sometimes you can build your confidence to be proactive by taking small steps. Introduce a small change first, experience success, and then take on something more difficult. 

2) Optimising your 'reason to' motivation. Your best ideas and proactivity will emerge when you focus on things you are very passionate about and see as important. Trying to be proactive about things you feel you "should" care about is unlikely to be successful because you are unlikely to have the commitment and resilience to deal with setbacks. 

3) Harnessing your 'energised to' motivation. Being proactive takes effort. For example, if you are introducing new ideas, people might now welcome them. So you need to ensure you have the energy to be proactive. Look after your physical energy by getting good sleep and staying fit. Look after your emotional energy by steering clear of toxic people, and managing your stress.

 

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 proactivity" includes the following three elements when introducing change:

  1. Consideration of context: The proactive behaviour has to “make sense” within the situation.

    Example coaching questions: Would this proactive goal make a meaningful long-term impact? Is the change I am introducing genuinely useful or is it just 'change for change sake'? 

  2. Consideration of others:  Consider your change from the perspective of others.
    Example coaching questions: Have I incorporated others’ interests into this proactive goal? Have I listened to others?

  3. Consideration of the self: Introduce change that is not going to overwhelm you and that "makes sense for you".
    Example coaching questions: How can I do the change without draining all my time and energy? Does the change align with my passions?

Speaking Up and Saying No

Women in Research "Small Wins" Webinar series

with ARC Laureate Fellow Lynette Russell

Suggested links

Suggested videos 

Managing You - Advice for Younger Self
When Is Proactivity Wise?
 
  1. Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace (n.d.). Monitoring your communication style. Retrieved from https://www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com 

  2. Center for Integrated Healthcare (2013). Assertive communication. Retrieved from https://www.mirecc.va.gov/ 

  3. González Fragoso, C., Guevara Benítez, Y., Jiménez Rodríguez, D., & Alcázar Olán, R. J. (2018). Relationship between Assertiveness, Academic Performance and Anxiety in a Sample of Mexican Students in Secondary Education. Acta Colombiana de Psicología, 21(1), 116-138. doi:10.14718/acp.2018.21.1.6 

  4. Ghodrati, F., Tavakoli, P., Heydari, N., & Akbarzadeh, M. (2016). Investigating the relationship between self-esteem, assertiveness and academic achievement in female high school students. International Journal of Current Medical and Applied Sciences, 11(1), 51-56. 

  5. Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

  6. Smith-Jentsch, K. A., Salas, E., & Baker, D. P. (1996). Training team performance-related assertiveness. Personnel Psychology, 49(4), 909-936.  
    doi:10.1111/j.1744-6570.1996.tb02454.x 

  7. Marks, M. A., Zaccaro, S. J., & Mathieu, J. E. (2000). Performance implications of leader briefings and team- interaction training for team adaptation to novel environments. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(6), 971-986. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.85.6.971 

  8. Kauffeld, S., & Lehmann-Willenbrock, N. (2012). Meetings matter: Effects of team meetings on team and organizational success. Small Group Research, 43(2), 130-158. doi: 10.1177/1046496411429599 

  9. Ferris, G. R., & Judge, T. A. (1991). Personnel/human resources management: A political influence perspective. Journal of Management, 17(2), 447-488. doi:10.1177/014920639101700208 

  10. Emler, N. (2001). Self-esteem: The costs and causes of low self worth. York: York Publishing Services. 

  11. Kelly, J. A., St. Lawrence, J. S., Bradlyn, A. S., Himadi, W. G., Graves, K. A., & Keane, T. M. (1982). Interpersonal reactions to assertive and unassertive styles when handling social conflict situations. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 13(1), 33–40.  
    doi:10.1016/0005-7916(82)90033-7 

  12. Bono, J. E., Boles, T. L., Judge, T. A., & Lauver, K. J. (2002). The role of personality in task and relationship conflict. Journal of Personality, 70(3), 311–344. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.05007 

  13. Ames, D. (2009). Pushing up to a point: Assertiveness and effective leadership and interpersonal dynamics. Organizational Behavior, 29, 111-133. doi:10.1016/j.riob.2009.06.010 

  14. Leaper, C., & Ayres, M. M. (2007). A meta-analytic review of gender variations in adults’ language use: talkativeness, affiliative speech, and assertive speech. Personality of Social Psychology Review, 11(4), 328-363. doi:10.1177/1088868307302221 

  15. Hollandsworth, J. G., & Wall, K. E. (1977). Sex differences in assertive behavior: An empirical investigation. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 24(3), 217-222. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.24.3.217 

  16. Lease, S. H. (2018). Assertive behavior: A double-edged sword for women at work? Clinical Psychology Science and Practice, 25(1): e12226. doi:10.1111/cpsp.12226 

  17. Zeringue, V. (1997). The power of femininity: An examination of the qualities women in leadership possess. Senior Thesis Projects, 1993-2002. Retrieved from http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_interstp2/27 

  18. Pfafman, T. M., & McEwan, B. (2015). Polite women at work: Negotiating professional identity through strategic assertiveness. Women’s Studies in Communication, 37(2), 202-219. doi:10.1080/07491409.2014.911231 

  19. Amanatulla, E. T., & Morris, M. W. (2010). Negotiating gender roles: Gender differences in assertive negotiating are mediated by women’s fear of backlash and attenuated when negotiating on behalf of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(2), 256-267. doi:10.1037/a0017094. 

  20. Cecen, A. R., Zengel, M. (2009). The effectiveness of an assertiveness training programme on adolescents’ assertiveness level 1. Elementary Education Online, 8(2), 485-492. 

  21. Eslami, A. A., Rabiei, L., Afzali, S. M., Hamidizadeh, S., & Masoudi, R. (2016). The effectiveness of assertiveness training on the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression of high school students. Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal, 18(1): e21096. doi:10.5812/ircmj.21096 

  22. Burke, C. S., Wilson, K. A., & Salas, E. (2015). The use of a team-based strategy for organizational transformation: guidance for moving toward a high reliability organization. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 6(6), 509-530. doi:10.1080/24639220500078682 

  23. Peterson, R. J. (2002). The assertiveness workbook: How to express your ideas and stand up for yourself at work and in relationships. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.  

  24. HealthyPlace (2010). Assertiveness, non-assertiveness, and assertive techniques. Retrieved from https://socialwork.buffalo.edu/content/dam/socialwork/home/self-care-kit/exercises/assertiveness-and-nonassertiveness.pdf 

  25. Rothmann, I., & Cooper, C. L. (2015). Work and organizational psychology (2nd edition). London: Routledge.  

  26. Buckley, C. (n.d.). 12 aspects of assertive behaviour. Retrieved from https://www.liveyourtruestory.com/aspects-of-assertive-behaviour-communication/ 

  27. Moon, J. (2009). Achieving success through academic assertiveness: Real life strategies for today’s higher education students. New York, NY: Routledge.  

  28. Whiffen, P., Mitchell, M., Snelling, M., & Stoner, N. (2017). Oxford handbook clinical psychology (3rd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  29. Chia Huei, W., & Sharon, K. (2013). Thinking and Acting in Anticipation: A Review of Research on Proactive Behavior. Advances In Psychological Science, 21(4), 679-700. doi: 10.3724/sp.j.1042.2013.00679

  30. Bateman, T., & Crant, J. (1993). The proactive component of organizational behavior: A measure and correlates. Journal Of Organizational Behavior, 14(2), 103-118. doi: 10.1002/job.4030140202

  31. Parker, S., & Liao, J. (2016). Wise proactivity: How to be proactive and wise in building your career. Organizational Dynamics, 45(3), 217-227. doi: 10.1016/j.orgdyn.2016.07.007

  32. Bindl, Uta and Parker, Sharon K. (2010) Proactive work behavior: forward-thinking and change-oriented action in organizations. In: Zedeck, Sheldon, (ed.) Apa Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. American Psychological Association, Washington, USA, pp. 567-598. ISBN 9781433807275

  33. Bateman, T., & Crant, J. (1993). The proactive component of organizational behavior: A measure and correlates. Journal Of Organizational Behavior, 14(2), 103-118. doi: 10.1002/job.4030140202

  34. DuBrin, A. (2013). Proactive personality and behavior for individual and organizational productivity. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

  35. Pettigrew, T. F. (1979). The Ultimate Attribution Error: Extending Allport’s Cognitive Analysis of Prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 5(4), 461–476. https://doi.org/10.1177/014616727900500407

  36. Michael, M. 8 Ways to Become a More Proactive Person | BusinessCollective. Retrieved 12 August 2019, from https://businesscollective.com/8-ways-to-become-the-most-proactive-person-you-know/index.html

  37. Bindl, Uta Konstanze (2010) Making things happen : the role of affect for proactive behaviours at work. PhD thesis, University of Sheffield.