Part three of our assertiveness series covered passive and submissive behavior, how people use it, and why it’s so difficult to change. In this article, we’ll cover the opposite end of the spectrum – aggression – and why some people use it as a default communication strategy to assert dominance in a social group or hierarchy.
We’ll start by explaining aggressive behavior, including how to identify it in yourself and others, along with the pros and cons of utilizing aggression. Then we’ll share some strategies for when aggression is appropriate and offer more effective ways to deal with aggressive and overcompensating behaviors.
Aggression is a communication style characterized by high dominance with little empathy or regard for the well-being of others. Some people default to aggression because of the sense of power it gives them or simply because it’s worked for them in the past.
If you’re coming from a first world country like the United States, depending on which part of the country you grew up in, most people aren’t naturally aggressive. Most will opt for social harmony and compliance in the face of aggression.
Going back to our core philosophy about nurturing positive feedback loops, it’s the same way with negative feedback loops. People with aggressive personalities learn early on that aggression is the best way to get what they want, because of the compliant feedback that comes from people trying to avoid conflict and confrontation.
This doesn’t mean we’re suggesting to develop an aggressive personality. Like everything else in life, it’s a balancing act. Aggression, much like submission, can be taken to extremes. Understanding how to navigate that fine line is key to learning how to express assertiveness in a healthy manner.
Traits of Aggressive Individuals
In terms of actions, aggressive people tend to verbally assert themselves over others in social settings. They might belittle and dismiss the concerns or suggestions of others. Or they might default to bullying behaviors such as insulting anyone who disagrees with them or anyone who they perceive as weak, or attacking and criticizing the opinions of others, regardless of whether those opinions are good or bad.
In terms of body language, aggressive people make themselves appear larger than they really are with penetrating eye contact, threatening gestures and movements, and verbal expansiveness.
People who default to aggression might hold internal belief systems such as “My needs are more important than others”, “My rights are more important than others”, “I have more rights than them”, or “My contributions are more valuable than theirs.”
The emotions most frequently expressed by aggressive personalities is anger. The goals and motivations that drive their aggression include having a “win at all costs” mentality, the desire for control and power over other people or situations, and the need to let everyone know that they’re in charge and in power.
For the sake of tying these concepts together, we’ll use a visual example from the debate between former president Donald Trump and current president Joe Biden. Given the chaotic political climate, I would ask you to suspend your judgment and just see their behavior for what it is, regardless of your political positions and beliefs.
We’re not endorsing any particular side or positions, but rather using this for teaching purposes. Notice in this clip how Trump comes out of the gate, interrupting Biden, verbally asserting himself as much as possible, slinging insults, and taking up as much space as possible with his body language and hand gestures.
Reasons Why People Utilize Aggression
Instill a Sense of Fear in Others
Being assertive with others causes them to gain respect for you in most cases, but it doesn’t cause people to fear you. On the other hand, aggression can make people fear you. For example, think of an unhinged mentally ill person or a hostile homeless person. They stir up fear in others, but that fear keeps them isolated and at the edges of society.
As another example, think of a rude and aggressive person in the workplace. They’re usually left alone and to their own devices. Their off-putting confrontational behavior helps them acquire more independence and solitude. However, the downside is that they’re frequently left alone and at the bottom of that workplace’s social hierarchy.
Verbally And Non-Verbally Assert Their Dominance
Much like in the Trump vs. Biden debate example above, aggression can be an effective tool to disincentivize someone from challenging your worldview and get people to submit to your will regardless of the facts.
Dominance can be used to strategically push people towards the submissive end of the spectrum or start playing defense. When someone starts defending and submitting to an aggressive person’s onslaught, it ironically makes them look weak and guilty. Their behavior alone gives off this impression, even if it conflicts with logic or facts.
If you want more specific breakdowns on Trump’s aggressive communication style, check out the following videos:
As a disclaimer, we’re only using these examples to give you context to why aggression is utilized as a communication strategy and as a means to assert dominance and obtain status. We’re not advocating for you to utilize an aggressive approach in your interactions or rely on it as a default to obtain status, dates, or gain respect from others.
Just remember that aggression is a great tool for obtaining short term power and quick wins. But it isn’t sustainable nor an effective means for being assertive, building healthy relationships, or winning people’s friendship and trust.
A Shortcut For Status
In the case of people who utilize bullying tactics, or people who’ve been bullied for a long time and have had enough of it, aggression is used as a tool to regain power, status, and respect with a display of force.
For people who’ve gotten fed up with being bullied and have a lot of internalized resentment, hatred, and anger, a strong display of aggression and power is often used as an effective means to re-balance the situation and cause the aggressive person to back down by meeting them with equal aggression.
Aggression can be helpful for acquiring status in a dominance hierarchy like high school or prison populations where word spreads quickly. It can also be used as a status-gaining shortcut against someone who has been an aggressor with higher status, or someone who is of higher status in general.
Channeled Aggression (in the context of sports)
In some sports, aggression can make up for lack of skills and talent. For example, in today’s modern NBA, many players are highly skilled and talented both offensively and defensively. Draymond Green is known for his aggressive defense and nasty trash talking as a means to get into an opponent’s head and to take his focus off of winning the game and focus on him instead.
I’m not saying he’s a terrible basketball player, but unlike a lot of his NBA peers, he’s not exactly known for his ability to score and take over games. He’s mostly known for his aggressive defense, volatile trash talk, and riling the rest of his teammates up during crunch time to win the game by any means necessary.
Aggression makes him a great player. It makes up for his lack of scoring skills and offensive talents, and his lack of imposing physical size compared to someone like Shaq. He’s won three NBA championships through his aggressive defense and his ability to rile his team up and be the team’s enforcer. Check out this video compilation for a visual example.
Aggression makes people feel strong and empowered. There’s a reason why revenge fantasies are so popular in modern media. In the TV show House of Cards for example, the first two seasons are a revenge tale for the protagonist House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, who was reneged of the cabinet position he was promised by the president-elect.
Being denied the job he was promised set off a domino effect of Shakespearean drama consisting of backstabbing, manipulation, collateral damage, and nonstop scheming, which eventually landed him the job of President of the United States. Aggression makes people who have been slighted feel more empowered.
Constant Aggression is Disadvantageous
While I’ve outlined some of the underlying reasons for aggression and how it can be advantageous in certain situations, it’s not a sustainable long-term strategy for commanding respect and power or becoming more assertive.
People often confuse aggression with power. But if there’s one thing the vast majority of researchers, psychologists, and authors agree on, it’s that aggression ultimately reduces and erodes your power in the long run.
Regardless of how you may feel about former President Trump, while he was effective at obtaining power and influence early on with his aggressive take-no-prisoners approach, the tradeoff was him eventually losing power and influence because of his constant wars with the media, the Democrats, and creating constant fear and division amongst his allies.
If you want a better understanding of Trump’s aggressive communication strategy and what the constant fear mongering brought to the West Wing during his presidency, I recommend the following books. They offer in-depth explanations on why constant aggression is not effective as a management strategy or for sustaining influence and trust in relationships.
The movie Scarface had a quote and foreshadowing of the film’s protagonist, Tony Montana, which encapsulates the downside of being too brash and overly aggressive when it isn’t necessary… “Remember I told you when you started, the guys who last in this business are the guys who fly straight, low-key, quiet. And the guys who want it all – choices, champagne, flash – they don’t last…”
Aggression Breeds Enemies
Our attitudes can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dr. Harriet Braiker says in her book, Who’s Pulling Your Strings?, “People with hostile, aggressive personalities expect others to be hostile. Consequently, they treat other people aggressively. When people are treated aggressively, they tend to exhibit hostility in return. Thus, since hostility breeds hostility, an aggressive person often evokes hostility from others.”
Hyper-aggressive Scarface types gain power quickly. But they lose it as quickly as they gain it because that same approach that brought their power also breeds a lot of enemies in the process.
Living in a world of constant aggression handicaps you in many ways. Living with constant fear, paranoia, and anger not only leads to poor decision making, but it can also negatively affect your physical health and lead to lower overall life satisfaction. Constant aggression leads to bad relationships and very few trustworthy friendships, which leads me to my next point…
Aggression Prevents You From Making Trustworthy Friends and Allies
Nobody eats alone, and nobody rules alone. No matter where you are in life, there are advantages and benefits of having a network of friends, allies, and supporters by your side. One of the major issues with aggressive people is that they end up alienating not only their “enemies” but also potential friends, current friends, and allies.
Aggression doesn’t make others feel good; it’s a charisma repellant. Nobody wants to be around them or support them, and this eventually leads to isolation in the long run.
Take for example former Soviet Union dictator Joseph Stalin. He was feared but not respected. His constant fear, paranoia, and sending everyone (including friends) to the gulag eventually led to his downfall and demise.
While never proven, it’s been rumored that his fellow Politburo members poisoned him and refused to let a doctor see him until he was dead, in order to not only secure their survival but also wrestle power away from him. You can read up on De-Stalinization in this Wikipedia article.
Aggression Alienates Allies
Collaborative coalitions and alliances sustain power in the long run. Whether it’s in the world of international politics or simple workplace politics, coalitions carry you to the top. Once you get to the top, the coalition helps you sustain that power.
Your everyday life coalition is also your support network. That network includes your neighbors, family, friends, and colleagues. Aggressive people frequently alienate and repel friends. If they do have friends, they’re usually weak, submissive, and easily manipulated.
Aggression in Leaders Signals Insecurity
There’s evidence that insecurity is a driving force behind aggression. In controlled experiments, subjects were more likely to act aggressively when their competence was challenged and they felt insecure.
There’s a reason why there’s so many Harvard Business Review articles on empathy in the workplace or content and management theory around empathy-based leadership to counter the stereotype of the aggressive, petty, and manipulative executive. These experiments show that, at least under certain conditions, it’s true that aggression can stem from insecurity, especially when the insecure man are in leadership positions.
The title of the academic paper is also very telling: “When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression.” So keep in mind that when you’re in a leadership position, avoid exhibiting aggressive behavior, as it can communicate to others that you’re either under threat or incompetent.
As we discussed, some people resort to aggression because of the sense of power it gives them or because they’ve found it to work for them in the past. These are the most common contexts and situations where people may utilize aggression:
- Instill a sense of fear in others
- Verbally and non-verbally assert their dominance
- A shortcut for status
- Channeled aggression (in sports)
- Aggression empowers
However, while short-term aggression may be beneficial in some cases, it’s not a wise strategy for communicating effectively and developing healthy relationships. Here’s a quick recap of the reasons why constant aggression is disadvantageous:
- Aggression breeds enemies.
- Aggression prevents you from making trustworthy friends and allies.
- Aggression alienates allies.
- Aggression in leaders signals insecurity.
Now that we covered both ends of the assertiveness spectrum, in the final part of this series, we’ll cover the concepts, nuances, how-to’s, tactics, and strategies for maintaining balance between submission and aggression in order to be socially assertive.
’Til Next Time,