Leaders and managers are finding themselves wondering what the heck is going on in the workplace with some women and minorities being “so sensitive.” Many male leaders now take inventory of past interactions with women and other minorities to determine if they will be the next to be judged and possibly tossed for something they did in jest many years ago. The past can’t be erased, but the future is a clean sheet of paper upon which you can imprint a new way to communicate.

Let’s take lessons from each of the three communication styles: Passive, Aggressive and Assertive.

Passive communication means failing to express honest feelings, thoughts and beliefs and consequently permitting others to violate oneself. It is also expressing one’s thoughts and feelings in such an apologetic, diffident, self-effacing manner that others can easily disregard them.

This style is seen in people who have less power and control in a situation. For example, when the boss asks one of his staff to complete a task that will take overtime the staff person will say yes when they really want to say no. The do this for fear of some sort of negative reaction that might make them look less than up to the job.

Another example from the “me too” era is when a leader or manager allows rude or inappropriate jokes and language that causes some to laugh and others seemingly to ignore. Silence does not mean that someone is not taking offense. They may not say anything for fear of being labeled a “prude” and being ostracized. This example and others like it are the interactions that can come back at a later date to “bite you in the butt.”

Lesson 1:  As the leader, you need to create an environment of trust in order to make it safe for your staff to say what is on their mind without fear of negative consequences.

Aggressive communication means expressing thoughts, feelings and beliefs in a way that is often dishonest, usually inappropriate and always violates the rights of the other person.

This style will get you in trouble most of the time. Aggressive language such as swearing and shouting elicit responses that are either passive (out of fear) or aggressive (out of anger). Neither of these styles will stop or eliminate the effect of the interaction. Let’s look at an example.

Your new warranty clerk (female) walks through the service area and hears a stream of profanity coming from a technician, who then throws a wrench. She doesn’t say anything (passive), but she is shaken and when she discusses this with the service manager, he tells her to ignore it. Yet, every time this tech is around her, she cowers a little and becomes passive. She sees that many of the techs use swearing and shouting when frustrated and she now avoids the service area completely. She eventually files a lawsuit claiming a hostile environment — and the company settles for six figures and loses a good warranty clerk.

Lesson 2:  Look for aggressive communication and take it very seriously — it needs to be eliminated. Get training for those who lose their tempers. This doesn’t mean that people will not get angry. It means that people get angry in productive ways.

Assertive communication means expressing thoughts, feelings and beliefs in ways that are direct, honest and respectful.

This style is the most effective and most misunderstood of the communication styles. Some leaders and managers feel assertiveness is too close to being passive. These leaders will fight the concept of assertiveness by saying that an aggressive style is needed to get anything done. The question is, “How many times have you been sued by employees?” and “What is your turnover rate?”

Being assertive (direct, honest and respectful) does not mean you are overly accommodating. It means you:

  • Express your expectations very directly (say what the expectations are),
  • Are honest (this may require some transparency on your part such as “I missed a deadline and really need your help.”), and
  • Are respectful (no threatening tone or body language).

A leader recently expressed to me that he no longer wanted to speak to the women in the office because he didn’t know the rules anymore. He was unsure what he could say or do. These lessons helped.


  1. Always use an assertive voice. Be direct, honest and respectful in your communication.
  2. Ask someone you trust to watch you and listen to some of your interactions and have them rate your body language, tone of voice and word choice as being passive, aggressive or assertive.
  3. Keep physical contact such as a hug or brief kiss on the cheek to those you know extremely well.
  4. When conducting a performance review have HR or someone else present (this is for everyone).
  5. Develop a culture of trust.

April/May 2019 Issue Contents