Ask Jo: You’re Told You’re Not Aggressive Enough? Here Are 4 Ways to Respond.

Question: I had my midyear review and received feedback that I am not perceived as being aggressive enough. They would like me to be more aggressive, push back, and challenge my leaders’ ideas. I have a concern about this. My experience is that women can be labeled quickly if they are too aggressive. Frankly, this can make people uncomfortable. 

Answer: The workplace is filled with mixed messages, unspoken requests and an invisible “playbook” which we are simply expected to find, use and live on a daily basis. One such message women often hear is that of how aggressive to be – or not to be – when assuming leadership positions.  

So, what to do with this feedback? I think you were just given a compliment, although a backhanded one, and one that is wrapped in confusing developmental feedback.

The compliment is that your management thinks there’s more to you than you let on. Make no mistake: you are being praised for your solid instincts, but challenged to bust out of your comfort zone, speak up, and add value. You’re being encouraged to act less like a high-performing team player and more like a leader. They think it is time for you to transition from doing to leading, and have identified your lack of “aggression” as the gap. But confusingly, your manager said “be more aggressive” rather than giving more detailed, useful feedback.

I’ll try to pick up where your manager left off, with 4 ways to respond when you’re told you’re not aggressive enough.

1.) Re-frame Your Definition of “Aggressive”

First off, is it possible that the word “aggressive” doesn’t mean what you think it means? Ask your manager to provide some additional adjectives or behaviors to describe exactly what they want you to do differently.

For example, one woman I know was asked by her employer to be more aggressive, and in return she asked for a more detailed explanation. By doing so, she learned that what they actually wanted her to do was summarize the team’s to-do items at the end of a conference call, then follow-up next time to check on completion. If she had run with the earlier feedback and demonstrated aggression, it might well have backfired.

2.) The Power of Observation

You should also observe people you work with, especially the women leaders you admire, then ask yourself:

• What specific actions and phrases do they use that result in them being perceived by others as constructively bold, opinionated, provocative and disruptive, taking the lead, and taking charge?

• Can you identify anyone who does this well, in a way that others appreciate and follow?

• What assertive leadership behaviors get rewarded in the team culture that you are a part of?

Try to mirror those positively “aggressive” behaviors until they become uniquely your own.

3.) Combine Power Phrases with an Open Demeanor

To cultivate a stronger leadership presence without being perceived as negatively aggressive, use “power phrases” combined with your usual open, inclusive tone of voice and body language.

With this communication style in mind, challenge yourself to speak up at least 25% more frequently than you did in the past, and make sure that you are regularly challenging your leaders’ thinking and assumptions. They want you to speak up so that your team can benefit from the wisdom you’re currently keeping under wraps.

4.) Don’t Let the Little Leadership Opportunities Pass You By

If you look carefully, you’ll see lots of little opportunities to take charge. Perhaps in the past you may have passively watched those moments go by, assuming someone else will take the lead. I want you look out for situations where there is a gap in leadership. Assume you are the ideal person to fill that gap with your management’s support, and then do so. Seize these opportunities and speak up!

The Takeaway

With these simple strategies, you can re-frame your workplace persona in a way that is constructively bold, without making anyone else feel uncomfortable. Who wouldn’t want to work with someone who is self-aware, speaks powerfully and inclusively, and is not afraid to take charge.

Jo Miller

Jo Miller is a globally renowned authority on women’s leadership. She’s dedicated two decades to helping women advance into positions of influence by leveraging their leadership strengths. Based on her work with hundreds of thousands of women, she developed a pragmatic and powerful roadmap that guides women to become the leaders they aspire to be. Jo shares this proven process in her book Woman of Influence: 9 Steps to Build Your Brand, Establish Your Legacy, and Thrive (McGraw Hill, 2019.)

Jo is CEO of leadership development, consulting and research firm Be Leaderly. Learn more about her speaking engagements at www.JoMiller.com and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

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