Assertiveness: A Mind-Set that Leads to Achievement

by Leroy Hamm for IHD Corporation, NACDB Member

Years of frustration from living in a “prison of passivity” led me to write this article. Saying “yes” to decisions and people when I should have said “no” left me living with some very negative consequences – in some cases for years afterward. The internal struggle of feeling powerless in some situations and of being tentative in circumstances that required honest, direct communication left me ultimately with a choice: Learn how to communicate more effectively, regardless of the different communication styles of others, or stay locked in my ineffective, self-made prison. I had to learn to be more assertive.

Assertiveness is not just a skill, it is a mind-set. And it can be difficult to learn because living it is more of an emotional issue than a rational one – both for the aggressive and for the passive person. It is a matter of unlearning certain misconceptions and learning another way of looking at one’s self and others. In a word, it is confidence. In their book, Execution, Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan and Charles Burek call assertiveness or confidence “emotional fortitude.” “Emotional fortitude,” says Bossidy, “gives you the courage to accept points of view that are opposite of yours and deal with conflict and the confidence to encourage and accept challenges in group settings. It enables you to deal with your own weaknesses, be firm with people who aren’t performing, and to handle the ambiguity inherent in fast-moving, complex organizations.” He goes on to say, “How can your organization face reality if people don’t speak honestly and if its leaders don’t have the confidence to surface and resolve conflicts or give and take honest criticism?”

Bossidy’s “emotional fortitude” is assertiveness, and managers have to have it or run the risk of not having any effectiveness. In the book, First Break All the Rules, by Buckingham & Coffman of the Gallup organization, according to their feedback, it is the mid-level manager who makes or breaks an organization. They report, “We discovered that the manager – not pay, benefits, perks or a charismatic corporate leader – was the critical player in building a strong workplace. The manager was the key. People leave managers, not companies. If you have a turnover problem, look first to your managers.”


Why do people leave their managers? In a study by Morgan McCall & Michael

Lombardo titled, Derailed Executives, six out of ten reasons that managers derail on their way to the top had to do with relationships. They are as follows:

  1. Insensitivity to others, an abrasive, intimidating bullying style.
  2. Coldness, aloofness or arrogance.
  3. Over-managing, failing to delegate or to build a team.
  4. Failure to staff effectively.
  5. Inability to adapt to a boss with a different style.
  6. Over-dependence on a single mentor.

All of the six causes of derailment listed above can be related back to assertiveness issues. For example, one assertiveness issue, aggressiveness, is a behavioral style that cares little about the needs, opinions or feelings of others, and gets what he or she wants in a domineering, obtuse and often impatient way. They are interested in winning and will do what it takes to do it. The language of an aggressive person is personal and demeaning, “You can’t do anything right. You’ll never make it.” “You shouldn’t be in this business.” “Even a six year old would understand that.” Their language may even be aggressive and they feel free to violate the rights and feelings of others. “If you don’t like it, then you know what you can do with it!” or “I know what I am doing so if you don’t like it then get someone else!” Aggressiveness inherently has character flaws. It is selfish, insensitive, and unfair. Typically, control is a big issue for aggressive people. They demand control because they fear the loss of it. When they feel they are losing it, their fear increases. What we fear tends to make us angry. And since the aggressive person handles his anger in an unhealthy way, it can damage relationships and scatter bodies on his way to the top.

Dealing Effectively with the Aggressive Person

The aggressive person actually responds well to those who stand up to them. However, if it is another aggressive, person, the problem is likely to escalate. The challenge for others less aggressive is just getting past the fear of what the aggressive person might do if they confront them. Once the passive person learns an assertiveness skill set, he may be surprised that the aggressive bark is bigger than the bite. The following are some suggested healthy responses to the aggressive person:

  1. I want to hear what you have to say. I am not willing to be called names.
  1. You seem really angry about this. I’ll talk to you about this at 2:00 p.m.
  1. I can’t talk to you when you are shouting.

Never get into a shouting match unless it is absolutely necessary. Never allow the aggressive person to intimidate you. Never get “personal” even if the aggressive person gets personal. Respond with “I want to hear what you have to say. I am not willing to be called names.” Keep it professional, not personal. Prepare ahead of time for the interaction if possible. If caught off guard, consider the source and keep your goals in mind. Depending on who it is and the potential risk versus benefits, it may not be worth engaging full throttle. Assertiveness is a choice and the response you choose to use may be aggressive, assertive or even passive but your goals are always assertive. Carol Price says in her CD series Assertiveness Communication Skills for Professionals that sometimes a “good run is better than a bad stand. “You decide your response. Don’t let others decide it for you. It is your choice.

IHD Corporation, a leader in pre-screening and personnel development, is a twenty seven year-old Human Resources services firm which provides pre-employment assessments and management and team development seminars and programs.

Leroy Hamm is President of IHD Corporation, a leader in pre-employment assessments and seminars on interviewing and communication skills. In 1987, Mr. Hamm founded IHD Corporation to train companies in the use of the DISC II and Achiever assessments. Leroy can be reached at

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