Not ‘aggressive’ enough? Do this

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An emerging leaders asks, "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. But my experience is that women can be quickly labeled 'too aggressive.' This can be especially true for women of color like me. Do you know of any resources that might help me have a stronger presence without having to walk the line of aggression?”

I think you were just given a compliment, although a back-handed one, that is wrapped in confusing developmental feedback. The compliment is that your management thinks there’s more to you than you let on. 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.

Here are three ways to tap into your leadership potential:

1. First, re-frame what you think "aggressive” means. Is it possible that 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 to be more aggressive by her employer. In return, she asked for a more detailed explanation. By doing that, 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 could have backfired!

You should also observe people you work with, especially the women leaders you admire. 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?

2. 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.

One leader who does this well is Donna Fujimoto Cole, founder and CEO of Cole Chemical, who has said that a leader needs to "communicate well and communicate quickly.” Cole believes good relationships make the business world go round. She is highly personable and a strong leader and driver. One resource she highly recommends is The Leader Phrase Book by Patrick Alain. It includes phrases to use to speak like a leader when opening a topic for debate, saying no to your boss or disagreeing with someone and what to say when someone is avoiding a topic.

With this communication style in mind, challenge yourself to speak up at least 25 percent 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.

3. 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 have passively watched those moments go by, assuming someone else will take the lead. Get used to recognizing situations where there is a gap in leadership. Seize these opportunities speak up! Assume you are the ideal person to fill that gap with your management’s support.

Blog Author Bio

Jo Miller, a women’s leadership speaker and founding editor of, has hosted the NEW Leadership Academy webinar series since 2013.

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