I get email newsletters from the Crucial Conversations people, Vital Smarts, and recently received an email addressing this question. What if you contribute your success to your ability to work well with others, lead by example and maintain positive relationships, while your boss leads with aggressiveness and even intimidation? And, what if your boss tells you he or she thinks you need to be “more assertive” in order to continue moving up the ranks?
Vital Smarts thinks you can play the game without compromising your values. They suggest being assertive when you are talking about your own interests or ideas, so that the boss can see your passion and assertiveness come through in those instances. Be open to others’ interests in that situation however, so that you aren’t seen as aggressive and intimidating like your boss is. In other words, be assertive, but make room for the other person. If you don’t, then you’re seen as intimidating too. Also pay close attention to the other person’s body language and verbal cues. If that person is feeling intimidated you will see it in their body language, and they become quiet or even silent, and that’s when you should back off.
These are great suggestions, but I think Vital Smarts is missing a piece of the puzzle. I would suggest asking your boss for examples of when he or she thought you should be more assertive so you can find out exactly when you need to show this behavior. Vital Smarts made the assumption that if you stand up for your ideas and interests, your boss would “count” that as being assertive. Perhaps your boss thinks you could play a little more “hard ball” when negotiating with clients, or perhaps your boss has noticed that when talking to the C-Suite you tend to become more quiet, or maybe he or she thinks you’re letting your subordinates walk over you and would like to see you push them harder… who knows unless you ask.
So talk to your boss and find out exactly when this assertiveness should be shining through, and THEN implement Vital Smarts’ suggestions so that your boss sees your assertive side but you avoid being labeled as a bully.