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Assertiveness in the Workplace

sadatworkcrpdMy post, Assertiveness for Beginners, sparked some passionate discussion.  There were two main–and very different–themes in the discussion.  Some people were talking about isolated (or recurring) incidents of hurt feelings, that may or may not constitute bullying; others were talking about systematic harassment by their bosses (bullying).

So in this post, I’m going to talk about the former.  In a few days, I’ll be doing another post, “Assertiveness with Workplace Bullies”, and that’ll address the latter.

But first, you need to distinguish between the two.  How do you know when your boss is just being thoughtless or unaware, versus when your boss is a bully? If your boss occasionally says things that you find hurtful or upsetting, it’s easy to assume that person means to do so.  And you might be right, especially if what’s being said would be abusive by any standard (for example, put downs, public shaming, or name calling.)  In that case, you might be interested in my next post.

But there are a lot of instances where a person can have hurt feelings in the workplace, and it’s not so clear-cut.  For example, some people have had traumatic experiences that have led to certain sensitivities.  A boss might not be aware of what those are, and might inadvertently trample on them.

Or a boss might be insensitive at times, but not necessarily unkind.  Some bosses have better powers of perception and people skills than others, unfortunately.

So, how can you tell?

We can’t know what’s in the mind of another person for sure.  If we assume negative intent, that might lead to a defeatist attitude.  We might say, “It’s not worth saying anything, because it won’t do any good.”

That means we would avoid assertiveness, and would instead find ourselves hurt again and again.  We might come to feel powerless.

An alternative is to find out our boss’ intent through assertiveness.  By approaching him or her privately and saying, “You said something earlier that I found upsetting.  Could I ask you to clarify what you meant?”, you might learn a lot.

If your boss seems genuinely concerned that your feelings were hurt, you can presume it was not intentional.  If your boss seems a bit defensive but still willing to engage, that’s still promising.  If your boss responds in a way that feels dismissive or demeaning, or stands by the comment despite the feelings it generated for you, then you might be dealing with a bully.

A key thing to remember about assertiveness is that it’s not only about stating a point (“I felt hurt, so don’t do it again”) and ending the discussion.  It’s about entering into a dialogue with another person that might ultimately lead to us feeling more positively about the relationship.

For the boss who’s being confronted, it can be an opportunity for self-awareness and self-improvement.  A good boss would take it as such.  It’s also a chance to be a more empathetic human being.

But another way to tell that you might be dealing with a bully is if other people have felt similarly demeaned, or if they’ve tried to confront the boss and been mistreated all over again.  If you’re especially nervous about asserting yourself, you might want to inquire with colleagues about their perspectives and experiences.

A good thing to remember is that most people are not bullies who delight in cruelty toward others; so when hurt feelings occur in the workplace, many bosses will want to address the situation and make it right.

Sad at work photo available from Shutterstock

Assertiveness in the Workplace

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2013). Assertiveness in the Workplace. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 May 2013
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