Assertive or Aggressive? What’s the Difference

Eleni Kelakos Executive leadership coaching, Problem Solving, Self Help, speech coaching, Women in Leadership

Years ago, while I was living and working in New York City as a professional actor, I had a passing acquaintance with another performer I’ll call Paula. With a soaring, powerful voice reminiscent of Barbra Streisand, Paula was one of the most talented singers I’d ever heard. As big as her voice was, her drive to succeed as a Broadway musical theater performer was even bigger. She was, however, continuously frustrated by her inability to land the kind of big, splashy roles she not only felt she deserved but could rightfully handle. The more no’s she got, the more frustrated she became.

One day she asked me if I would recommend her to my theatrical agent, in hopes that he might sign her to his agency and help her audition for the higher-caliber roles she wanted. Because I believed so fully in Joanie’s abilities, I called my agent without hesitation and asked if he would be willing to meet with Paula. Since it was unusual for to me make a request of this nature, my agent was intrigued, and immediately scheduled a get-to-know-you meeting with her.

Several days later, I got a call from my agent. He was mad as a stepped-on cat. “I met with Paula,” he snapped, “and I looked at her acting reel and listened to her vocal recording. And yes, you’re right, she’s extremely talented. But, as I told her, we already have someone similar on our roster and don’t have time or manpower to adequately represent her right now. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer! She got very agitated, and told me I was making a big mistake, that there wasn’t anybody like her, anywhere, and that she could sing circles around the actresses we already work with. She kept on talking and talking and pushing me to take her on. I mean she was seriously in my face, and extremely unpleasant. I finally had enough, and I told her the meeting was over. She flounced out of the office and practically slammed the door behind her. It was unbelievable! I’m sorry I ever agreed to meet with her. Please don’t ever introduce me to someone like that again!” And then he hung up on me.

I was shocked, and angry too. Shocked that Paula had chosen to act in such an inappropriate way with my agent, and angry that, by doing so, she had potentially jeopardized the valuable business relationship I’d built within him. As a consequence, not only did I never again recommended a friend or acquaintance to my agent, I disengaged almost completely from my friendship with Joanie.

When I look back on that incident, I realize that Paula had stepped over the line from being assertive to being aggressive. And it had not only cost her any further consideration from a powerful and potentially helpful agent, but our friendship as well.

What is the difference between being assertive and being aggressive, anyway? I define it like this: Being assertive is clearly and firmly asking for what you need and want and standing up for yourself—like asking your boss for a raise, or asking your colleague to stop telling demeaning blonde jokes in your presence. Being aggressive is insisting on what you need and want, at all costs (including overriding other people’s feeling, needs, rights and desires), like taking over a conversation and ignoring your colleagues’ viewpoints, or insisting that someone take your call when they don’t want to. There is a world of difference between the two behaviors.

Paula behaved in an assertive manner when she reached out to me and asked if I would introduce her to my agent. This was both acceptable and commendable—after all, if you don’t ask, you don’t get! She veered into aggression, however, when she forcefully and relentlessly tried to get my agent to represent her after he had said no.

The difference between aggression and assertiveness is often very confusing for the women I coach. Many of them would be loath to exhibit truly aggressive behavior of the kind that Joanie apparently engaged in, especially in a workplace setting. However, they are also hesitant to engage in behavior that is merely assertive—like asking for a raise or speaking up in a meeting. There are couple of reasons for that reticence. The first is that they are unaccustomed to asking for what they want and need, and uncomfortable doing so. Which makes even a small act of assertiveness feel huge. The second is their concern that assertive behavior might be construed as an act of aggression, especially by the men they work with. Unfortunately, they have reason to be concerned about the latter. Research tells us that assertive women are often perceived or mislabeled as being aggressive. Furthermore, social scientists have found that the more assertive a woman is the less “likeable” she is perceived to be. This is called Likeability Bias.

According to an likeability bias is rooted in the age-old expectations that men are supposed to be assertive and take leadership while women are expected to be kind and communal. When a woman has a strong, assertive leadership style she’s often pegged as aggressive, bossy or intimidating—words that are typically not used when describing a man with a similar style. Conversely, when women are agreeable and nice, they risk being perceived as lacking in competence or ability. This puts women in the business world in a terrible double bind. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t, they inch forward on a tightrope trying to figure out just how assertive they should be. “Should I risk sharing my opinion?” they wonder. “Should I disagree? Do I dare say no when everyone else is saying yes?”

Thinking back again to my old friend Paula, I now wonder: Did I judge her unfairly? Did she really step over the line into aggression the day she met with my agent? Or did he view her as being bossy, intimidating, and aggressive when she was perhaps only strongly and persistently advocating for herself? Since I wasn’t in the room with them, and didn’t, at the time, have either the courage or the wherewithal to ask Joanie for her side of the story, I’ll unfortunately never know.

As Paula’s experience makes clear, the line to be toed between assertiveness and aggression is a muddy, confusing constant for women. That said, I’d rather encourage the women clients I coach to be more assertive and take the risk of being called bossy and unlikeable, than to stay silent and agreeable to a fault. I’d rather they fight for what they need, want, and believe and go down trying, than hide underneath their cloak of invisibility. Because, like you, who they are, and what they have to say matters, and if they won’t stand up for what they need, want, and believe, who will?

NOTE: In the coming weeks, I’ll research, explore, and share with you some ways to manage and escape the likability trap. For now, consider these questions:

  • How much does wanting to be liked affect your willingness to assert your needs, wants and beliefs?
  • Have you ever been called aggressive, bossy or intimidating when you were simply being assertive? How did it make you feel?
  • Is being assertive in the workplace worth the risk? How might your life and work change if you took that risk more regularly?