Give Me What I Want or I’ll Ruin Your Career (Assertiveness)

Kris Dunn Business Development, Caliper, Career Advice, Change, Coaching, Culture, Driving Productivity, Employee Communications, Employee Development, Kris Dunn, Managing People, Talent Management

When was the last time you blew up at someone at work? When was the last time somebody got all over you to hold you accountable or get what they wanted?

In either situation, the person doing the damage (you or the other person) might have a reputation for this type of thing. That type of reputation comes with a variety of tags depending on the personality, your company’s culture and how extreme the behavior is.  

Need a list of the tags/identifiers?  Try a**hole for starters. There’s also a variety of gender-related tags (both male and female) to describe aggressive behavior, but I’m a Midwestern kid and too nice to list them here.

Then there’s the tag “assertive.” This identifier is most often used to describe aggressive behavior in companies that use assessments and share profiles openly across teams, which is a cool practice but can lead to stereotypes and self-fulfilling prophecies. Here are two examples:

“Of course Cheryl was going to destroy Bob on that project. She’s high assertive, dude!”

“Yeah, that conversation could have gone better – I shouldn’t have made him cry. But I’m high assertive and it just kind of happens with me.” (optional palms in the air and shoulder shrug)

Assertiveness is an interesting factor in any company.  

But assertiveness is probably misunderstood in the world of HR.  Let’s dig in and see if we can get deeper than calling someone an ass.


In researching this post, I was immediately conflicted on how to define assertiveness. uses the following definition for “assertive”:

–confidently aggressive or self-assured; positive: aggressive; dogmatic

But once you add the suffix to the word (-ness) and attempt to source a definition from organizations that specialize in the science of behavior, you get something a little different. Here’s how Psychology Today defines “assertiveness”

–Assertiveness is the ability to formulate and communicate one’s own thoughts, opinions and wishes in a clear, direct and non-aggressive way.

Did you catch the difference? The world-at-large includes “aggressive” in the definition, while the psychologists label assertiveness as “non-aggressive”.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, with both definitions illustrating a range of behaviors we could reasonably expect from a high assertive teammate.

One definition is hopeful for the world/workplace and cares what you think as assertiveness is applied to a situation that you’re a part of.  The other one might have just lit your car on fire to prove a point. You had it coming because they tried the Psychology Today way and it didn’t work out.


If someone you love/want to help answers ”yes” to two or more of these questions, they’re low assertive:

  1. Are you a human doormat?
  2. Has someone given you a t-shirt that says “human doormat”?
  3. Do you say “yes” when you mean “no”?
  4. Are you frightened by people in the sales department at your company?
  5. Do you keep your opinions to yourself for fear of upsetting or starting an argument with others?
  6. Do you refuse to tell others what you need from them, often at the risk of your own performance being viewed negatively?
  7. Do you have a hard time bringing yourself to flag down a waiter proactively to get a refill? Do you wish he would just come over and do it?
  8. Did you just sigh out loud?


If someone you love/want to help answers “yes” to two or more of these questions, they’re high assertive:

  1. Have you changed the TV channel in your work break room when it was unclear if someone was actively watching what was currently playing?
  2. Has someone ever called you a gender-related name (either male or female, or both) in response to your aggressive behavior in the workplace?  These names might or might not rhyme with “Rick” and “Ditch.”
  3. Have you ever told someone exactly what you thought in a meeting and witnessed people around you become physically uncomfortable?
  4. Have you ever been told you have a habit of interrupting people?
  5. When you want a refill, do you hold your glass in the air and start clinking your ice cubes around in the glass so your waiter understands your needs?
  6. Have you ever made an offer on a car or a house that was so low your spouse was embarrassed?
  7. Are you unsure what the big deal is after reading the items on this list?


Everyone knows the “No A##hole Rule”.

A##holes are bad. A##holes are toxic. A##holes can ruin teams, lives and yes – the culture of your company if they are left unchecked.

I’m going to accept all of that and move on. A##holes suck.

But something happens to a lot of execs and HR pros who buy into the “No A##holes rule”. We flip the script and buy into what I’ll call the false negative on the no A##hole rule. That false negative goes like this:

“If someone’s not an A##hole, that means they’re a good teammate and can be effective in our company.”

That’s not only inaccurate, but it’s also dangerous.

The dirty little secret about difficult people who are highly assertive is that they get things done. Assertiveness, as it turns out, is necessary for our companies. We need people to push for results, for accountability and to make others uncomfortable when any of those things are in short supply.

But overreacting to difficult people changes that. Once we have experience with a real jerk in the workplace, we automatically think/hope that a skilled person without assertiveness can be effective in a role that requires assertiveness.

The next time someone’s repping a passive candidate who’s great in every way but is being considered for a role that requires hardcore assertiveness, take a pause and think.

No one wants to hire an A##hole, but properly displayed aggression – with socially appropriate bumpers and respect for others – is a reasonable and necessary part of any good definition of assertiveness.


FOT Note: This post is brought to you by the good folks at Caliper (a leading provider of employee assessment and talent development solutions) – who like us enough to be an annual sponsor at FOT for all content in our assessment and development track (and don’t expect that we run any of this by them ahead of time). Check them out, friends. Use them to help you select the right person, then maximize performance once they’re on your team.