Early in my career as a psychologist I came across the concept of assertiveness training. At the time it seemed so basic and obvious that it was hardly worth my attention. It did not seem to be the kind of skill a trained psychologist should be spending their time focusing on. Yet, through the years it has been the one skill that I have come back to time and time again. Without assertiveness people end up in unsatisfying relationships, feel they are not able to get what they want in life, or that others don’t respect them enough to respond to their needs. So often, however, the basic problem is that they don’t know how to ask for what they need, or to tell people when their behaviour is unacceptable to them.

The reason that people frequently fail to be assertive is that they are not prepared to take the risk. Being assertive means asking for what you want or saying what you feel without knowing how it will be responded to. Being assertive means expressing yourself with ‘no strings attached’. It means putting your thoughts or feelings on the table, but then stepping back from that table and letting the other person respond authentically and within their own capacity. If they choose to reject your opinion or request, true assertiveness asks that you will be okay with that. Forcing someone to respond to your sentiment tips over into aggressiveness and failing to say anything for fear or rejection falls into the camp of passiveness.

Assertive cultures

Assertiveness is also critical to a functioning organisational culture. Yet, here the picture gets more complex. People may not ask for what they need or speak up about unacceptable behaviour, not because they don’t have the skills, but because they don’t feel supported to do so. In some cases, being assertive in a toxic culture can be outright dangerous. So, assertiveness needs to be approached with caution. Yet, it is also the key tool which keeps cultures on track and which keeps people accountable.

This also means that people coexisting in assertive cultures need to be able to hear what is being said without becoming defensive. If someone raises a concern with true assertiveness, responding with self-defence not only shuts down the other person (perhaps encouraging them to step back from assertiveness in the future) but also ensures that the crucial piece of information being communicated is never heard. Hearing someone raise a concern about our own behaviour (especially when it is in a sensitive context, such as the ethical domain) is always threatening, but going with defensiveness is never the best strategy. Even if you disagree with what is being said, that is not the main point. The key is understanding what other people think and how they see you. It is about taking a different perspective and being willing to acknowledge and entertain it. It is about starting a discussion, not ending one!

Strategies for creating assertive ‘speak up’ cultures

To create an assertive ‘speak up’ culture, there are a few key things that can be done across the organisation to ensure that people are able to communicate and respond effectively to inappropriate behaviour. Following these principles not only impacts on organisational risk factors, but also builds authenticity, honesty, and resilience into people, teams, and organisations.

1.     Senior management need to lead the way: It is much more threatening for junior colleagues with less professional capital to fall back on to be assertive. Management need to show they can not only communicate assertively with others, but that they are able to hear and respond appropriately to assertive communications directed to themselves.

2.     Encourage self-reflection: Being assertive means understanding one’s own motivations. True assertiveness is about trying to reach for better outcomes, not about blaming others for undesirable outcomes

3.     Never tolerate retaliation: This fundamentally increases the risk associated with assertiveness, and will quickly shut down an assertive culture

4.     Promote a growth mindset: People who see their personal qualities (such as their intelligence or their morality) as fixed, respond to negative feedback as threatening. Those who see these qualities as changeable and things that can be developed overtime, respond to feedback as an opportunity to learn and grow

5.     See affect as information: Just because a conversation feels awkward or uncomfortable is not good reason to reject it or become defensive. Negative and unpleasant feelings are important sources of information that need to be explored and understood.

If you are interested in creating an ethical culture in your workplace and developing ‘speak up’ capabilities across all staff, please contact brock@psysafe.com.au or david@psysafe.com.au (see www.psysafe.com.au for more details)

Professor Brock Bastian


Professor Brock Bastian is an internationally acclaimed researcher, author, speaker, who has spent the last 20 years seeking to understand the various social and cultural factors that impact on mental health, wellbeing, and decision-making.

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