Aggression seems to be a bad word these days — and I’m not sure why.
In tennis, when I was younger, I was always told to be more aggressive. In boxing, if you’re not aggressive at least some of the time — well, you get knocked out. On the sales floor, if your reps aren’t trained to aggressively pursue leads, your company makes less money. And even more personally, if in your professional life you don’t advocate for yourself aggressively, you’ll never end up with what you want.
For some reason, these days, if you’re a tech founder or employee and you’re labeled as “aggressive,” you essentially become a pariah or an uber villain.
But to be honest, I seek out some level of aggression in both the people I choose to work for and the people I choose to work for me. And for me, to steal the words of Scott Belsky, “Aggression is a feature, not a bug.”
In my experience, aggressive people are, in the majority of cases, more effective.
My first job out of college was with a real estate finance firm led by a woman who would have made Mike Tyson sweat. She was tough, demanding, and extremely competitive. I knew she would do everything in her ability to stay ahead of and steamroll the competition. She yelled at me when I underperformed, and she demanded a very high level of excellence in general.
But she also led by example, was brutally honest, and pushed me to be the best version of myself possible. Her level of commitment and passion was contagious. Wouldn’t you want those same qualities in somebody you work for or somebody that works for you?
Yes, sometimes getting such honest and blunt feedback (both privately and publicly) felt like I was getting hit in the head with a baseball bat, but boy, did it teach me how to take critical feedback and develop a thicker skin fast.
It’s a shame that it wasn’t until most of the Bay Area read Principles by Ray Dalio that they understood that sometimes being aggressive and blunt can actually be the most effective and timely way to solve a problem. You wouldn’t believe how many meetings I’ve been a part of that turned into complete wastes of time because people were too afraid to offend and confront each other, despite the continuous talking behind each other’s backs.
In my experience, both leaders and employees who are afraid to be a passionate, honest, or aggressive waste time and foster cultures of toxicity in which key problems aren’t solved and progress stagnates. In the large majority of cases, confrontation is much better than no confrontation at all. The reason you work in a team or have a co-founder is to get to these times of creative abrasion and emerge from them with a more battle-hardened plan, even if some egos are bruised along the way.
Here’s why I actively seek out aggression in the people I hire.
1) Founders aren’t always right; we need people who’re willing to argue with us.
The only way for founders to understand when we’ve made a mistake — and to make the appropriate adjustment — is for our team members to tell us, sometimes through persistent, uncomfortable conversations. And, you guessed it: having these conversations requires guts and aggression. Having team members who are more willing to speak up and deliver difficult feedback also show other more shy teammates that their voices and opinions are essential for us to have a healthy internal feedback loop and grow as a team and company.
2) “Passion” and “aggression” are usually tied together.
The people you bring onto your team need to be passionate about the work they do. As exemplified by founders like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, passion is inextricably tied with aggression — passion being a desire to aggressively pursue your goals or achieve an outcome. Usually, one doesn’t come without the other.
One of Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles is even, “Have a backbone. Disagree and commit,” which notes the importance of always challenging decisions when you disagree.
3) People that are more aggressive aren’t as deterred by negative feedback.
Employees, like founders, must be able to process and implement negative feedback quickly. I’ve found that more aggressive team members are more capable of this. They get feedback and quickly bounce back, wanting badly to show you what they’re capable of.
4) Aggressive team members are usually more competitive and willing to jump at new challenges.
Aggressive teammates are more competitive, and competitive teammates are more willing to take on new challenges and responsibilities to drive your company forward — even if the challenge seems impossible. Simply put, at a startup, you need people like this. For one thing, they inspire others to emulate them; their aggression becomes contagious. But this competitive edge is also a necessity for innovation — which is, by definition, the willingness to try things that have never been done before. Cautious team members beget cautious products.
The key to using aggression effectively — and both hiring and managing aggressive team members — is noting the difference between constructive aggression and destructive aggression.
And the difference is easily noticeable. For example, if you yell at people for problems that are out of their control (or stem from your actions), that’s not exactly constructive. It’s just rude. And it’s the version of “aggressive” which many in the tech industry and the Bay Area have (rightly) villainized.
But if you aggressively push yourself to be the best leader you can be, and your team members to be the best they can be in their roles, that engenders progress, competition, and energy — the fuel that will power your company to achieve its goals.