How Leaders Can Be Assertive Instead of Aggressive

An interesting incident happened to me in my final year in college. I went to the administrative department to check my name on what we call the “notice board” in Nigeria. My name was meant to be part of the list of final-year students who were expected to join the National Youth Service Corps.

In Nigeria, you are expected to serve your country for a year after your final year of college. Instead of getting a regular job, you dedicate a year to serve your country. On this fateful day, I went to check my name and pick up my call-to-service letter. Surprisingly, my name was not on the list, despite me excelling in school. I wondered what happened, so I asked the administrative office.

I was told it had something to do with my grades. I responded emphatically that my grades were fine, and then the woman I met checked the data before her and discovered they had made an error. My name was omitted from the list. This oversight would cost me a year because it was too late to include my name. I was legitimately upset that I was going to have to wait for an extra year. I shouted and yelled at the administrative executive. I was deeply upset about the oversight and painful mistake. I felt as if I was boiling. But in hindsight, I could have handled the situation better. I didn’t have to shout and yell to pass my message across, and I could have escalated it to her boss if I chose to.

In other words, I was aggressive and not assertive. I attacked her instead of attacking the issue. I communicated my pain, not my message. I focused on her, not the problem itself.

I tell this story because this is what many of us do in business. When there’s an issue, instead of focusing on what went wrong and seeing if they can fix or mitigate it, many people attack, shout, yell and use words they’re not proud of. Then, they feel guilty or regret their statements later on.

As leaders, it’s important to learn how to be assertive, rather than aggressive. When you are assertive, you can communicate your message and attack the issues, not people. But when you are aggressive, you are attacking people.

A couple of days later, I ran into the administrative executive at an event. Unfortunately for me, she was an acquaintance’s mum. I felt deeply unhappy and my guilt increased. I was not proud of myself. This acquaintance had said beautiful things about me to his mother, but I had messed it up in my moment of anger. Was my anger legitimate? Yes. But was that the best way to resolve the issue? No. I did not have to yell, shout or utter unkind words. I should have focused on my desired outcome. I should have dealt with the issue, not the person.

A couple of days later, I ran into the administrative executive at an event. Unfortunately for me, she was an acquaintance’s mum. I felt deeply unhappy and my guilt increased. I was not proud of myself. This acquaintance had said beautiful things about me to his mother, but I had messed it up in my moment of anger. Was my anger legitimate? Yes. But was that the best way to resolve the issue? No. I did not have to yell, shout or utter unkind words. I should have focused on my desired outcome. I should have dealt with the issue, not the person.

To become more assertive, remember that how you communicate a message is as important as the message you are communicating. This means your style of delivery is as important as the content of the message. When you experience an emotional flood, instead of responding immediately, pause before you speak.

Austrian psychiatrist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl is known to have said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space.” I believe that in that space lies your emotional power. As a leader, you can control your emotions and reactions by taking frequent pauses. Pause before you speak. Pause while you speak. Pause after you have spoken. Your pause is what turns your emotions into emotional intelligence. Your pause can help you take control of the situation you or your team is facing, rather than allowing the situation to control you.

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