Assertive is A-OK, Sweetheart

For a woman in business who goes after what she wants without apologizing along the way, the challenge is to avoid being viewed as a bitch. Too often, women who are both assertive and aggressive are characterized this way, even though they aren't doing anything differently than their male colleagues. Most women have a natural tendency to care more about what others think -- and how others describe them -- than men do. I'm not sure why this is true, but even as children, girls become conscious of how they appear, talk and come across earlier than boys do. I already see my 10-year-old niece and her friends worrying about this.

So it begins at an early age and continues into adulthood, with women often so worried about how others perceive them that they alter their communications style, hold back on what they really think or change their demeanor at work. How can we break this habit as adults and lead assertively without coming across as offensive, too aggressive or manipulative?

If you're a strong-willed, bold and vocal woman outside of the office, don't become demure or overly polite inside office walls. Don't hold back -- use your assertive personality to your advantage. There are ways to get what you want, rise to the top and lead a team without coming across as crass. Here are a few tips.

  1. Compliment -- then (constructively) criticize. This tactic almost always works when delivering less-than-pleasant news, or when you simply want the person on the other end to really listen to you. Always try to find something positive to say first. Their ears will perk up, and they'll be open to what you are saying. Then move into the constructive criticism phase. The news or critique will be taken with open ears, rather than in defensive mode.  
  2. Listen. It sounds simple, but think about whether or not you truly listen -- to customers, partners, colleagues, employees. Do you multitask when you're in meetings? Do you take notes on, or reiterate, important points? Do you take action and follow up? All of these elements of listening show that you not only care, but that you take action. And leaders must take action.  
  3. Speak up. Just as listening is important, so is talking. And I don't mean electronically. Strong leaders have face-to-face or phone discussions. These ensure that whoever's on the receiving end understands your tone, hears your intention and can ask questions or rebut as appropriate. Don't get dragged into e-mail arguments -- leaders don't hide behind the computer.  
  4. Don't say you're sorry. Women seem to use this phrase unconsciously. From the get-go, it puts you in a position of lesser power. You can feel bad about something, or be sorry about it, but try not to default to this phrase. Instead, say "That's unfortunate, but..." or "It's frustrating, but ..." Try it -- every time you hear yourself starting to say "sorry," stop. Breathe. Think of a more assertive way you can project empathy without saying you're sorry.  
  5. Don't worry about who likes you. We all like to be liked. But if you want to be the boss, give up this notion now. You'll never please everyone. And, quite frankly, as the boss, you shouldn't care to. Great leaders are leaders for a reason -- they are comfortable going out on their own and going against the grain. You might not get invited to after-work cocktails. So be it.  
  6. Don't avoid the hard stuff. Showing that you can handle the tough jobs -- and don't avoid uncomfortable situations -- will gain the respect of those around you. They'll see how your assertiveness not only works for you but also helps them. After all, not everyone wants to be the person handling that angry client. Most people don't want the job of firing an employee, even though they know it's necessary sometimes. Show them that your aggressive personality comes in handy, and they'll learn to love and appreciate it more.  
  7. Keep a sense of humor. It's OK to "let your hair down" from time to time and show that you can laugh with the best of them. Remember, being assertive and getting what you want doesn't equal mean. The best leaders and motivators know how to have fun and get along with others, but also how to get everyone back to work when needed.  
  8. Smile. It sounds simple, right? But it goes a long way. Smiling shows not only that you are pleasant while going for what you want, but that you are confident and comfortable with doing so. Think Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. She smiled ... while slaying.  
  9. Get some heels. OK, not really (calm down). What I mean by this is that it's OK to be a leading woman. Wear what makes you feel powerful, smart and sassy. Walk and talk confidently. And don't apologize for it. It's OK to be feminine and also to be strong. Wear pink if you want to. We don't have to wear men's suits -- we're not men.  
  10. Ask for what you want. It's a long-running joke among men that they always have to guess what women want. Unfortunately, in our personal lives and relationships, that may often be true. But if you want to be a winning woman entrepreneur, you'll get used to asking for what you want. Loudly, boldly, with confidence and with reason. And you know what? I bet you'll get it -- with a smile.

Christine Perkett is founder and president ofPerkettPR, an integrated PR, digital production and social media marketing agency. She won the Stevie Award in 2008 for Best Communications, Investor Relations or PR Executive.She speaks often on the subject of PR and social marketing. Connect with Perkett on Twitter (@missusP) or at her blog,