Communication at work: Aggression, Submission and Assertiveness

18 October 2023 at 09:28 · 7 min read

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How we communicate with others especially at work can have a huge impact on both our long term mental health and career. 

Whilst some work environments are more conducive to good mental health than others, there are still some things you can do to help better-manage these interpersonal relationships . 

In general, it's possible to break down the way we use direct communication into one of three styles - that is, when we are trying to make a direct point to someone, rather than using indirect or other means. Depending on our personality, we might use one more commonly than others, but we’ll all use a combination of them at some point:



Sometimes a work colleague can react to stressful situations in an aggressive way that can make coworkers uncomfortable. An obvious - though extreme example - would be a boss shouting at a worker for poor performance. Behaviour like this isn’t exactly indicative of a healthy, positive work environment, but sadly it does happen. 

Sometimes this is simply due to a loss of control on the part of the aggressor. It’s not necessarily a deliberate attempt to hurt someone else, but perhaps more of a stress-response. 

However, in some cases, this kind of behaviour can be quite intentional. It’s not necessarily pleasant to think about, but for some in positions of authority, it can be a deliberate trick used to initiate a fear emotion in others. The ‘intent’ here is to put their interlocutor in an emotional state - one of panic; fight-or-flight. It’s much more difficult to use logic and reasoning in these situations to the effect that the aggressor is more likely to get what they want.



Part of the reason that aggression can work is due to the recipient assuming a more submissive communication style in response. In body language terms this might mean backing away, making oneself smaller, or making self-comforting and defensive gestures.

Oftentimes this can mean agreeing to whatever feels necessary in order to make the aggression stop - which can be the intent of the aggressor. It can be viewed as the ‘flight’ aspect of our fight-or-flight response taking over. 

Both of these are inherently emotional responses and as such have inherently emotional consequences for us. An overabundance of either is likely to have poor consequences for our mental health as well as our work life, with our self-esteem suffering as a result. But these aren't the only options...


In contrast to the above, assertiveness is a more logical response that refuses to engage emotionally with the above communication styles. Here, speakers back up their opinions with rational arguments, clearly presented. 

At work, it's best to be assertive. Remember this is not the same as being ‘pushy’ or intransigent. Rather, it means to be able to argue for one’s opinion calmly; not giving in to the natural temptation to become either aggressive or submissive. Admittedly, sometimes, in the heat of the moment, this is simply not possible. 

For example, we could state our reasons to our angry boss from earlier - and they might well be entirely valid. However, if this simply serves to escalate the aggression it might be better to recognise that our boss is having an emotional reaction and is therefore not likely to be reasoning rationally. It could be better to simply remove yourself from the situation and have the discussion later once they have calmed down.

It’s hard to be aware of these things in the heat of the moment, but doing so can help you steer through potential conflicts at your workplace a lot more easily.

From an organisational standpoint, assertive communication is obviously best for several reasons. First and foremost, no one should have to deal with aggression at work. Setting aside any mere ethical concerns, the negative impact of this can have many other different dimensions. 

For one it is detrimental to the mental health of everyone in the workplace, and what's more; likely to heighten anxiety, lower self-esteem and decrease engagement. Such factors are in fact more likely to decrease productivity, and it's not hard to see how a vicious cycle could develop. 

Improving productivity and efficiency requires clear, critical thinking. Whether something has gone wrong or right at work, we need to know the reason for it; we need to be able to examine the situation logically. 

Though it might be easier said than done, the less we let emotions control us and the more workers feel equally entitled to communicate assertively and rationally, the more likely sound logical solutions are to be found. Clearly, this is something that can benefit not just individuals, but organisations as a whole.


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