Assertiveness by itself will not get you a promotion, nor the respect of your peers and direct reports. But failing to stand your ground effectively, and - conversely – being too controlling and aggressive, can halt your advance up the corporate ladder. So why are organisations seeking out assertive leaders and where do you fit on the assertiveness barometer?
Assertiveness is a way of describing how people defend their interests. Assertive leaders can create a compelling vision, communicate strategy and clearly define objectives and service quality standards. They inspire their people, gather support, and create alignment within a team so that everyone moves in the same direction. They avoid the confusion and disorientation caused when team members are trying to second-guess what they’re supposed to be doing and why.
Assertive leaders exude confidence. They are prepared to stand their ground when they walk down the corridor to deal with Human Resources or Finance! They create a safe space for team members to voice concerns and discontent, avoiding the trap of toxic communications cycles. They can even encourage your most soft-spoken people to share their thoughts and ideas with the wider team; ideas that might turn out to be star dust further down the line.
Until now, organisations have viewed assertiveness as a trait that relates exclusively to the personality of the individual. Either you are assertive or not. But it is now time for companies to start looking at assertiveness as an institutional issue. That is because the structure and function of every organisation has a direct impact on whether the next generation of leaders are capable of rallying their people in the right direction.
Organisations also have a responsibility to ensure that their current crop of leaders has the right environment in which to be assertive. They cannot expect team leaders to act assertively if those leaders don’t have a clear mandate from management, or if their jobs are constantly being put on the line. The organisation as a whole has to create the right environment for assertiveness to flourish.
Why should you be an assertive team leader?
Being assertive is a fantastic trait whether you are managing relationships upwards, downwards or horizontally within an organisation. It comes in very handy when you are negotiating resources for your team, trying to get budgets approved, securing full-time employee positions or backing your key performance indicators in front of the big boss during the annual review process.
If you are servicing other departments you need to be able to say what needs to be said in a constructive manner. In doing so, you will establish your team’s reason for existing and defend their expertise. In the process you are also likely to challenge misconceptions, push-back unrealistic deadlines, create a productive dialogue and develop trusting relationships with your peers.
With the external eco-system a little assertiveness is also of great value. Whether you are doing business with contractors, managing complex campaigns with multiple stakeholders, or negotiating deals on behalf of your company, assertiveness will bring dividends.
Walking the assertiveness tightrope
Research published by the American Psychological Association shows that individuals who come across as too low or too high in assertiveness tend to be rated as ineffective leaders by their colleagues (see Table 1).
Highly assertive individuals do get the tasks done and achieve short-term goals. However, they often dampen relationships and are likely to undermine team spirit over the longer term. While low levels of assertiveness might make you popular, it often goes hand-in-hand with underperformance.
Being assertive is a little like walking a tightrope which is suspended 10 metres above the ground. What is likely to make you fall and what will keep you balanced?
There is no straightforward answer to this question. This is because balance comes from aligning your own personal values, strengths and sense of purpose with the needs of the outside world. Assertiveness involves taking charge from the inside out. Know who you are and what you have to offer and listen carefully to what is going on around you. That will help you to apply the right degree of assertiveness to the right group at the right time.
So how can you keep your assertiveness in balance, and what cues should you look for to recognise when you are out of balance? The answers depend on a number of factors which are, quite often, out of your control. Factors such as the direction of the organisation, the nature of your team and the individuals who are part of it.
Where is your company heading?
You need to pick your leadership style (and with that, the right amount of assertiveness) depending on your organisation. What is the overall strategic business, and what are its financial and organisational objectives?
The leadership style you choose is not necessarily your own personal working style. For example, you cannot suddenly decide to be an authoritative leader so you can take your team through a restructuring phase – but then fail to make yourself heard by displaying low assertiveness skills. You will not get the results you were expecting, and you will lose credibility within the company.
Remember, you need to be adjusting your leadership style and assertiveness level all the time. If you are naturally an authoritarian leader, you must balance this with more federative and coaching styles of leadership. If you do not, you risk that your team will view you as manipulative, abrasive and self-driven. And vice-versa, if you are comfortable acting like a counsellor to your team and like to keep everyone happy, you should be capable of switching your leadership style and assertiveness level to be able to take tough business decisions or implement change within your organisation.
What is the nature of your team?
Teams that are working physically together have very different dynamics to those working virtually or in separate locations. Individual members of these teams will exhibit different assertive behaviours – and this will vary depending on the way of working (see Table 2).
The diverse nature of these teams requires different levels of assertiveness from the team leader. For example, virtual team leaders might need to be more assertive during the initial development of their team. They can gradually shift to a less assertive style as the right processes, roles and responsibilities are laid out, reporting lines become clear, routines settle in, and trust becomes established within the team.
If you are heading a cross-cultural team, you must strive to be sensitive to the different national perspectives, desires, work methodologies and cultural backgrounds of your team members. The more cultures in a team, the higher the complexity of the relationships between individual members of the team. There is also greater room for misunderstandings, even if you all speak the same working language. As the team leader, you need to watch out for what is not being said, read between the lines and decipher what level of assertiveness the team requires you to demonstrate in order for it to function efficiently.
Who is in your team?
If you are managing an international team you know that diversity is a big bonus. Each individual brings a different cultural, linguistic and national perspective. When a diverse team is well integrated and has an assertive leader, it develops an identity and culture of its own. This identity will transcend that of the individuals.
As a team leader, you should not underestimate the impact that culture and nationality can have on the ability of individual team members to be assertive. We know that Americans will be far more direct and assertive when giving a presentation compared to their counterparts from Asia. Japanese people for example, will be more likely to be deferential and seek consensus.
But we do not need to look across the globe to see this. We have an incredible patchwork of nationalities in Europe. There are cultural differences – not only between nations, but within each country. Individuals might have diverse approaches to work, communication, recognition and even assertiveness depending on whether they come from the south, the north, east or west.
The gender mix in your team is also an important factor to be taken into account. Studies show that women tend to be less assertive about their own performance and ambitions. Compared to men, they are more inclined to give credit to the wider team and minimise their contribution.
Research also shows that women tend to use a less assertive style of speech. They use tag questions (such as, “I like this approach, don’t you?”), disclaimers (“I agree, but…”) and make statements sound like questions when they are not. As a team leader, you need to be aware of the gender differences and give both sexes an equal chance to succeed and be promoted.
Last but not least, when deciding how assertive you need to be you must consider the profile of each team member. Are they highly experienced or just starting? How high are they in the pecking order? Are they feeling settled or do they have a tendency to explode when confronted or under pressure? This on-going analysis will help you decide what leadership style you should be using with each individual and how assertive you should be.
Creating the assertive leaders of tomorrow
There is no doubt that assertive leaders are an asset for any organisation, especially in these times of constant flux and relentless pace.
As a team leader you should be asking what you need to put in place to nurture and groom the talent within your team so that they can grow to be assertive leaders. Similarly, companies should be making a clear distinction between leaders whose assertive behaviour magnifies their good judgement, expertise, professional will and integrity; and assertive leaders who are great schmoozers, very charismatic and will sway crowds, but lack vision and depth. Guess who will take organisation further along the road to success?
However, one size does not fit all. To be successful, leaders must be highly analytical and flexible enough to be able to apply the right level of assertiveness to meet the needs of the organisation and their team. The complexities that lie behind choosing the right dose of assertiveness skills shouldn’t be underestimated. Nor should the importance of the organisation as a whole in creating the right environment for assertiveness to flourish be discounted. But it must be the kind of assertiveness that you want for your company, the type that comes from substance, critical thinking and talent.