Leadership

Assertiveness: Great managers strike a happy medium

A study from Columbia University says that better managers are not unduly assertive. Take this TechRepublic poll to let us know where you fall on the assertiveness spectrum.

People have written tons of articles about what makes a great leader great. Some conclusions center around his or her intelligence, charisma, or personal drive. Researchers at Columbia University have come to a little bit of a different conclusion.

Professor Daniel Ames, with a colleague in the Management Division, Frank Flynn, centered their research on coworker evaluations of their MBA students. Former coworkers commented on the students' strengths and weaknesses and also rated their leadership potential. When asked, "What's holding this person back from being a great leader?" the answer that came up most often was assertiveness. This was mentioned from both sides of the coin, with some people described as too overbearing and others described as not assertive enough to stand their ground.

Ames says that the reason assertiveness comes up so often is that conflict is such an essential part of what managers and leaders deal with. He said,

"Sometimes it's avoiding conflicts that really beg to be embraced and engaged in. Other times it's pushing too hard and straining relationships through conflict."

Ames also points out that there's variance across situations as well:

"Someone who's a real mouse to their immediate supervisor might turn around and be an absolute terror to the people who work for him or her."

I think, too, that the motive or outcome behind "winning" has something to do with the effectiveness of assertiveness. A leader who wants to win just for the sake of winning is less effective than the leader who is going to bat for something he or she believes in. But even then, a highly assertive person (even if they're fighting for the right reason) may not see the consequences of his behavior. For example, he doesn't see that the person he just dealt with is feeling frustrated or angry -- feelings that can linger and affect the next interaction -- all that is important is the win.

Ames says that middle levels of assertiveness tend to be associated with more effective leadership:

"We find what is essentially an inverted U between the ratings of a person's assertiveness and the ratings of their leadership: up to a certain point it's positively associated, and then it goes back down."

How do you make someone who is too assertive less so? And how do you make a meek person more assertive? Ames recognizes that you can't change someone's character. But with the right kind of coaching, you can alter the person's behavior.

Early in my career, I was assertively-challenged, if you will. But that gradually changed the more time I spent in the working world. I saw that assertiveness is not anger, and that there are just times you need to push your case.

I'm interested to see where TechRepublic members fall on the assertiveness spectrum. Take this poll and let's see.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

18 comments
chapmac
chapmac

I would agree. After 25 years, coming out of the shoot as a supervisor I was too soft, and swung to the right over a few years, too hard, settled in the middle as I hit a stride; supervisor, manager, executive. I believe in strong relationship management style, not only with my employees but with peers and seniors outside the organization. I am always working on my style and technique of leadership - listening is a key. (People watch what you do, how you act) There is always hope for us 50ish, to be able to work with people, regardless of age or personality - that is the challenge!

SCM
SCM

Ok, but how about some resources for those of us who feel that we need to work on being more assertive.

Foggier
Foggier

Toni, you are correct. One MUST be assertive to get along. But I find it amusing that nascent managers and management researchers seem to find fault with a lack of assertiveness, but fail to see a bit beyond this. The idea that assertiveness is necessary points, I think, to a flaw in management itself which needs to be addressed. One basic definition of management is getting the best work out of your people. This includes obtaining opinions as to possible solutions to a problem, and then weighing them objectively and unemotionally. Many managers roll over to the most aggressively presented argument, without asking for or considering those less assertively argued, or, I might add, attempting to draw out other solutions from the assertively-challenged. The best salespeople, it is said, can sell anything to anyone. This is good for the salesperson, but not for the customer. Many managers are salesmen or share that personality, and consequently they applaud the salesman for the good job?but they don?t realize that THEY are the CUSTOMER. An idealist argument? Surely. But management IS a dialog.

alan.channing
alan.channing

"Middle levels of assertiveness tend to be associated with more effective leadership" Doh! Have they actually understood what Assertiveness is? If you are truly "Assertive", it doesn't go up and down - It is used appropriately in every situation. All else is bullying or apathy.

Chandi Sukumari
Chandi Sukumari

Great Managers strike a medium - happy or otherwise. Some may be happy about it, whereas some others may not be that happy. However, job of the manager is to ensure that the job is done with maximum participation and a relevant scale of enthusiasm from the team. So, striking a medium is what a manager needs to do.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Are mouse-like. Gets them closer to you. They have no use for assertiveness until they assert.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Lead = persuade people to follow. They aren't going to do that if you are hiding under your desk, or behind them with a whip.

moore-margaret
moore-margaret

I'm somewhere in the middle and that works well with my teams but I've been in situations many times where those above me use every opportunity they can to abuse me. And when I do get assertive with that group, they claim I'm a nay sayer, angry, not a team player.....just can't win. I think they just don't want to be challenged.....

david.skues
david.skues

I think assertiveness is like the cup of coffee with desert after you've had the meal. To assert your ideas is to put them out in the arena of discussion, to voice them strongly. However, assertion without confidence and trust is like betting it all without looking at your cards. Essential precursers to assertion are building rapport with your supervisors and coworkers so that they feel like you are competent, thoughtful and considerate. You also have to know the people well enough to know what language they will receive and what language they will reject. At the end of the day, the results of assertiveness depend on many other relationship factors. One can measure their assertion using their relationships as a guide to put their ideas in the arena without over doing it and having their ideas dismissed for either over or under assertion. That's my quick 2 cents anyway.

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Ice Road Trucker, Worlds Most Dangerous Catch, pales by comparison to the trials of "Ghosts Adventurers" and "Most Haunted". Its all fun and games until you end up looking Satin in the eyes -- Oh, My mistake it was my boss.

phyrefly.phyre
phyrefly.phyre

I'd say the exact opposite of that. Good Managers (and even some Bad ones) strike a medium. Great Managers strike a "happy" - whether it's "medium" or not. People are different: some people need to be pushed hard to pull their weight, and others need to be babied into sharing their ideas with the team. A Good Manager will strike a medium, and most people can cope with that. A Great Manager will identify each person in their team as somewhere along that continumm, and treat each person as they need to be, thereby getting the best performance from each individual. And THAT is why most people will identify Assertiveness as being the thing holding a good manager back from being great, because very few people are actually AT that spot in the "medium" - so while the team as a whole performs ok, nobody's getting exactly the environment they need from their manager.

a.berry
a.berry

...I can forgive you for not having noticed sooner that in North America, institutes of higher learning expend exhorbitant amounts of resources (fiscal and otherwise) restating the obvious in the guise of earth-shattering revelations.

nehrings
nehrings

Seems like everytime I find a tech republic article I want to read, Toni Bowers is the author. Love your stuff Toni! Tony H's sarcasm is at the heart of what's wrong with our workplaces. Tony, your toxicity makes me place even greater value on the majority of people I work with today. I'm sure your coworkers feel the same way. Forcefulness in leadership is relevant to the highest levels of every organization.

AlphaW
AlphaW

Not always easy to be assertive with your boss, and when you do be prepared to take the wrath as a non-team player or angry. What is important to you, is not always important to others and fighting for it is a challenge. I go out of my way not to jump to conclusions based on any one conversation. On the other hand as a Manager, plesae be assertive with me, but I cannot say yes 100% of the time either.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Oh don't worry UK 'scientists' are quite willing spend huge wads of money on f'all. A recent study showed women who drink alcholhol are more likely to get breast cancer. This was done by showing that out of the sample most of those who had it, had at some point had a drink. Any fool could tell them it was caused by inhaling, I mean they all did that.....

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

And on one of my milder comments. Normally I'm more cynical than sarcastic. How can you lead without being assertive? Which is more satisfying, being a top dog, or a sheep dog?

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