Healthy Work Environments


For an organisation to be effective and efficient, it needs people who can address issues in an adult manner, dealing with them in the here and now using a problem solving approach. Without this approach, vast amounts of personal and organisational energy is consumed by interpersonal conflict. This energy can be better utilised in solving problems to enable the organisation become a value added organisation of excellence. Successful organisations therefore need to address interpersonal issues and create an environment where assertive behaviour, is the norm. This helps you to enjoy your work and the relationships you have with people in work.

Assertiveness at Work

In the past, it was thought that it was possible to be one person at work and another person outside of work. Research has shown that trying to behave in this way causes stress for people outside of work, and reduces their productivity in work.

It is recognised now that it is the whole person that comes to work with all their issues, attitudes and beliefs, and these inevitably influence people’s behaviour at work

Behaviour is a result of a lifetime of experience. When we try to make sense of our experience through our mental process, this influences our attitudes. Our attitudes are also influenced by our personal values that are a result of our beliefs. Our beliefs are a result of our life time experiences. Our beliefs are very important to our mental health and can make us very upset if they are shaken. Behaviour on the other hand can be modified without too much pain. Another way of describing “modifying behaviour” is that we are learning. This is turn influences everything else that we do.

Our past experiences and our lives outside inevitably influence our behaviours in work whether we are aware of this or not. If we have been hurt in the past, we create emotional defences to protect ourselves. We are often  unaware of our defences, but we take them with us wherever we go, including work. In work our defences can create behaviours that are inappropriate and even counter-productive.  Work is not the place to resolve all the issues that have created our defences, but developing awareness of our behaviours in work can help us to modify our behaviours in work.


For an organisation to be effective and efficient, it needs people who can address issues in an adult manner, dealing with them in the here and now using a problem solving approach. Without this approach, vast amounts of personal and organisational energy, is consumed by interpersonal conflict. This energy can be better utilised in solving problems to enable the organisation become a centre of excellence. Successful organisations therefore need to address interpersonal issues and create an environment where this adult behaviour, often called assertive behaviour, can be encouraged.


What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is about addressing issues here and now, as they arise in, a problem solving way that creates a win-win situation.

An assertive person interacts with people to achieve a win-win solution.

The opposite of assertiveness is aggression. There are two sorts of aggression: direct aggression and indirect aggression. Abdication is not taking any responsibility for your role in the relationship.

Aggressive behaviour that goes unchallenged leads inevitably to disciplinary action because the end results are bullying, intimidation and stress. Challenging the aggressive behaviours is the most effective way to improve performance so that the energy wasted in interpersonal issues can be used in productive and effective activity towards meeting goals and targets. It is also a tool for empowering yourself and others by affirming your ability to solve problems effectively.

Assertiveness Matrix



I Lose

I Win



You Win


Indirect Aggression


(I’m not OK, You’re OK)






(I’m OK, You’re OK)



You Lose




(I’m not OK, You’re not OK)




Direct Aggression


(I’m O.K., You’re not OK)


The underlying assumptions in this model are:

  • People are OK (even when their behaviour is inappropriate: behaviour can be changed.)
  • People can think.
  • So people can make decisions.
  • So people can change their mind about these decisions when they receive effective and timely feedback.

You make decisions based on your beliefs about the World you live in. You can change your beliefs and manage your feelings in a positive way if you decide that is what you want to do.
You can make the decision to change your own behaviour. You can give others feedback to enable them to change their mind about their decisions on how they behave and subsequently their behaviour.
By being assertive you can change your behaviour and you can change other peoples’ response to you.

Life Decisions

I’m not OK, You’re OK

  • Victim
  • Has lots of negative thoughts about self
  • Some typical feelings are: guilt, hurt, ashamed, stupid


I’m OK, You’re OK

  • Positive approach to people and self at home and at work
  • Able to express authentic feelings whether positive ‘I am really happy’ or negative ‘I am angry’.
  • Always own these feelings
  • Able to express their needs to others

Some typical feelings are: contentment, appropriate anger, trusting, confident

I’m not OK, You’re not OK

  • Strong negative thoughts and actions about self and others
  • Does not take responsibility for their own actions
  • Believes other people don’t have the ability to help them
  • Some typical feelings are: despair, apathy, weak, rejected


I’m OK, You’re not OK

  • Strong negative thoughts about others and negative comments
  • Gives other a lot of negative / and or phoney feedback
  • Behaviours experienced by others as aggressive and bullying

Some typical feelings are self-righteousness, indignation, hostility,


Assertiveness is about:-

  • telling someone directly what you want or prefer in a way that is neither threatening or punishing and does not put the other person down.
  • not getting what you want if that means trampling over the needs of others.
  • standing up for your rights and not at the cost of violating the rights of others.
  • being open about your feelings, both positive and negative
  • being able to express what you want without experiencing undue anxiety

Direct aggression is about:-

  • expressing feelings and opinions in a way that punishes, threatens or puts down the other person
  • getting your own way no matter what
  • fighting, manipulating, being sarcastic, spreading gossip
  • winning and leaving someone else feeling bad that they have lost

Indirect aggression is about:-

  • hoping you will get what you want but leaving it to chance or another person to magically realise what it is that you want
  • talking to other people about an issue, but not the person(s) directly involved
  • sulking
  • losing and feeling bad about it, but burying the feelings.

Aggression is one of the most common defence mechanisms. (It is important to recognise that, in the workplace, humour, when it is in the form of put downs, is one of the most powerful forms of Direct aggression.)

What is it that we are defending when we use aggression in the workplace?

There are three main areas being defended

  • a hurt from the past that we fear is being re-enacted (punishment, bullying, unequal power situation that is not legitimate)
  • we are aware of things that we don’t know that we think we should know
  • we don’t want others to know what we are feeling because we feel vulnerable or feel the need to manipulate.

Defences are important to our emotional and mental health: we need them to defend us from intolerable situations where we have previously been hurt or vulnerable. We keep up our defensive guard and therefore use our defensive behaviours whenever we feel threatened.

If we want the organisation to work effectively and efficiently then we need to create an environment where people feel psychologically safe:-

  • they can trust other people, no matter what their position, to work with them in an adult to adult way, finding win-win solutions to issues that arise
  • they know that they can express their opinions about an issue without put downs or personal judgements
  • that there will be no unfair or unexpected repercussions following their contribution

An environment where this atmosphere pervades is dynamic and proactive, facilitating the sort of problem solving that enables continuous improvement and world class output. We can create this environment by encouraging everyone at every level to be assertive.

Giving people feedback on their behaviours and their achievements is where all the skills discussed in this report are put into action. There are three models for feedback and an effective people select the most appropriate one for the situation.


1. The Feedback Sandwich

For feedback on events/achievements.

  1. Ask the individual: What would you do differently if you were to face that event/activity again?
  2. Tell individual a good thing about their actions/behaviour.
  3. Discuss the weaker points with suggestions for improvement.
  4. Tell the individual the best thing about their performance/activity.


2. Assertive Confrontation

For feedback on behaviour, always start with a persons name.

  • When you said/did............(observable behaviours)
  • I felt/ thought.....................(honest expression of thoughts & feelings)
  • I would prefer...................(open statement of preferred behaviours)

Note the word ‘I’ is very important in assertive behaviour. To express our thoughts and feelings effectively we need to own them. By always using the word I to express our thoughts and feelings we are owning our thoughts and feelings. This is very empowering for the person who is expressing they thoughts and feelings as well as very powerful and effective feedback for the person being addressed.



To be effective feedback must be a BOOST with the following characteristics.

It must be about..............................BEHAVIOUR

You must have observed it.....................OBSERVED

The statement must be.........................OBJECTIVE

You must be...................................SPECIFIC

Your feedback must be.........................TIMELY

i.e. as close to the event/behaviour as is practicable.

An assertive approach is a key to job satisfaction and positive relationships at work.

Further Reading

The book "Please understand me - character and temperament types" by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates (ISBN 0-9606954-0-0) explains individual preferences in behaviour.

The book "I'm OK, You're OK" by Dr Thomas Harris (ISBN 0-380-00772-X) explains assertiveness which is about appropriate interactions.

The ProcessThe ReportFeedback