Women panelists say assertiveness, not aggressiveness, is the way to succeed in the workforce

Written by: 
Geena DeMaio


Learning how to be assertive and self-empowering but not aggressive was what a group of local professional women urged others to work on to combat gender bias in the workforce at a panel discussion on Jan. 23 at the Heber J. Grant Building, organized by the BYU–Hawaii Management Society.

The panelists included Sarah Acobera, Shemaina Maeve, and Emily Plicka. Maeve, the assistant director of the McKay Center for Intercultural Understanding, said of being assertive, “It’s the positive and constructive use of power. When I look at assertiveness in my own life, it looks like confidence; it looks like surety and the ability to make tough decisions, to take charge of meetings and of projects. The practice of assertiveness is founded when and how it’s done best with my voice and the power that I have in different position in specific places.”

For Acobera, a senior from the Philippines with a double major in psychology and human resources, assertiveness means feeling self-assured. “Assertiveness means I know who I am as a person and feeling confident in what I stand for and my beliefs.”

Assertiveness vs. aggressiveness

Maeve said, “It’s important to make the clear distinction between assertiveness and aggressiveness. Sometimes we hear those two words used interchangeably, but they’re not. Aggressiveness to me is the misuse of power. The use of power in a way that is violent whether that violence is verbal, emotional or physical.”

Plicka, a BYUH English instructor, asked the questions: “How do I view myself? Am I confident in myself? Do I believe that I deserve ‘X’? When you view yourself in a positive way, confidence is earned because of the work you’ve put into the situation. Then that’s a positive.”

Practicing confidence

According to Plicka, becoming more assertive takes practice. She said, “Catch yourself every time you start to feel yourself about to say, ‘I’m sorry but...’ If you start with an apology, you automatically diminish what you have to say. Another thing we often say is, ‘This may be a dumb idea but...’ Those kinds of introductions when you are speaking up in a group setting or with a colleague are important to avoid.”

Maeve said, “A key to practicing assertiveness is making sure you are clear and direct. It helps us get straight to the point and to take as many opportunities as you can to lead. Whether it’s in your classes now, or you sign up for a group project – take leadership… If you’re in a church setting and you have the opportunity to minister to someone – take charge whether it’s work, home, school, church when there are opportunities for you to get involved.”

About practicing to be more assertive, Acobera said, “At first, I was more aggressive than assertive, and it took time to get balance. Assertiveness can be between passivity and being aggressive.” She said it takes time to strike “the right balance of knowing what you want, but also being very respectful and think about the great characteristics [of person you are speaking with].”

The boundaries of assertiveness

Maeve said, “The main boundary we should be concerned with is determining how we are viewing the other person with which we are speaking. At the heart of non-violent communication is our ability to recognize the needs, challenges, hopes, and even imperfections of the person on the other side.”

Situation behavior and impact model

Another option for women and men, according to Plicka, is to follow the Situation Behavior and Impact (SBI) Model. She asked Sam Tobon, a sophomore from Colombia majoring in business management, to stand as an example of what action to take through the SBI model. Motioning with his arms as if he were swimming, Tobon stood in front and showed this non-verbal communication through deliberate movements. Plicka said Tobon’s behavior was observable data that could be clearly understood.

Plicka invited attendees to practice being assertive by using SBI. For example, she said, “It’s not the ‘you’ statements, ‘You were disrespecting me,’ it’s, instead, ‘I’ felt disrespected.’ When you practice that, it can create a situation to have a conversation where you can really see and hear and understand the person you are discussing this [issue] with,” she added, helping those involved to not be on guard but open and receptive. “It could also be a great way to give feedback,” Plicka said.

The Center for Creative Leadership came up with the SBI model and describes its three-step process for business leadership on its website:

“1. Situation. Describe the specific situation in which the behavior occurred. Example: ‘This morning at the 11 a.m. team meeting …’

Avoid generalities, such as ‘One morning last week,’ as they can lead to confusion.

“2. Behavior. Describe the actual, observable behavior being discussed. Keep to the facts. Don’t insert opinions or judgments.

Example: ‘You interrupted me while I was telling the team about the monthly budget,’ instead of ‘You were rude.’

“3. Impact. Describe the results of the behavior. If the effect was positive, words like ‘happy’ or ‘proud’ help underscore the success of the behavior.

Example: ‘I was impressed when you addressed that issue without being asked.’

If the effect of the employee’s behavior was negative and needs to stop, managers can use words such as ‘troubled’ or ‘worried.’

Example: ‘I felt frustrated when you interrupted me because it broke my train of thought.’

Because you’re describing exactly what happened and explaining your true feelings — not passing judgment — the employee is more likely to listen and learn.”

Maeve said she supports the SBI model of communication and encouraged students to state what they would like to happen. “If I felt ignored, and I would like to have a discussion with you about it,” she said, using the SBI model provides clarity and direction on how to move forward.

BYUH Management Society

According to Jana McQueen, a senior from New Zealand majoring in business and member of Women in Business, “The BYUH Management Society is an international network of business professionals devoted to promoting moral and ethical leadership around the world.”

She said the organization was founded in 1977 to connect alumni and friends of the BYU College of Business. It has grown into an international organization consisting of more than 90 chapters in 30 countries including, Brazil, India, Hong Kong, and Russia. The society encourages ethical standards, service, career development, and continuing education.


Date Published: 
Monday, February 11, 2019
Last Edited: 
Monday, February 11, 2019