Assertiveness at Work:  What Makes or Breaks A Leader?

Assertiveness at Work: What Makes or Breaks A Leader?

In the workplace and the community, you’ll see a range of different management styles.  Some leaders rule with an iron fist, with little regard for their coworkers, others lead in a more casual and socially conscious way.  Every management style will differ with the varying personalities and temperaments, but a trend emerges.  Managers, in general, will tend to lead in three ways; low assertiveness, moderate assertiveness, or high assertiveness.  Managers have a choice to make, do they provide genuine feedback to their new employee that will help them achieve their goals, or will they come at them with an ultimatum to get results or hit the road; or choose to say nothing to avoid unsettling anyone?  This decision will have far-reaching consequences on the success of the manager and the company they lead.  

Low assertiveness for the sake of this article is similar to passiveness.  Managers with low assertiveness tend to focus on the social relationships they cultivate with their coworkers.  Being socially conscious seem like a good idea on the surface, you need your workers on your side to achieve goals right?  The truth is it’s not that simple.  
Passive leaders can get caught up in concern for their friendship and relationship with employees it can come at a cost to performance.  

Highly assertive managers are heavily focussed on performance outcomes, which may come at the expense of social relationships in the workplace.  The highly assertive managers in this area are the most aggressive leaders.  Aggressive leaders are focussed on achieving performance outcomes and will achieve the goals more through fear and intimidation rather than inspiration and encouragement.  One example of the attitude of managers like this is “I want results, not excuses" and this attitude ignores the genuine concerns of the employee.  Failing to recognise them may lead to results, but with the obvious strain in the relationship between a manager and the employee.  

Then there are those in the middle who operate with moderate assertiveness.  These managers can walk the fine line between the two and achieve performance outcomes without damaging the social relationships with their colleagues.  Assertive leaders achieve this balance by using effective communication, inspiring their teams, and capturing the vision of the organisation so everyone can get on board. 

Many studies explore what makes a leader, but there aren’t as many that highlights what breaks a leader.  A study by David R. Ames and Francis J. Flynn explored what breaks a leader and what they found is helpful in understanding what employees value in a leader, and what they see as essential skills for a leader to possess.  In the paper, they say they “suspect that the perceived shortcomings of leaders may often reveal around chronically low levels of assertiveness or chronically high levels of assertiveness.”  High levels of assertiveness may bring instrumental rewards and short-term goal achievement but can be costly when relationships fray or fail to take root.  In contrast, low level of assertiveness may bring social benefits but can undermine goal achievement.

Looking at the differences in behaviours in low assertiveness, high assertiveness and moderate assertiveness, the authors of the study described low assertiveness as unwarranted deference, high assertiveness as belligerently pursuing goals, and moderate assertiveness as a defence against imposition and actively making legitimate claims.  

To compile the data, the researchers asked students about the weaknesses of managers they've worked with.  They asked the students to provide comments in responses to this question “consider areas where you think this person could improve as a colleague and leader.  What do you wish they would do differently,  what do you wish they would change?”

The responses from the students gathered information about their manager's intelligence, conscientiousness, charisma, and assertiveness.  When they analysed the data (493 strengths comments & 426 weak comments), they noticed that by far the most mentioned attributes the respondents would like to see change are the levels of assertiveness of their managers.  48% of the weakness comments spoke of high assertiveness as an area of needed improvement. 52% of the comments made reference to managers with low levels of assertiveness.

These comments show what is breaking the leaders in the study.  It also highlights how aware employees are of this particular trait.  

There were a few others things determined from this multi-pronged study.  One of which is the curvilinear outcomes of perceptions on effectiveness that showed how assertiveness influences performance outcomes and social outcomes.   In basic terms, as assertiveness increases (aggression) performance improves, but social outcomes decline.  As assertiveness decreases, people are better able to get along, but the performance of the company may suffer.  These results were determined through a questionnaire asking participants questions on how assertive another person was, their expected future success, and their ability to cultivate a strong relationship, and their ability to achieve performance goals.  

From the results of the survey, it may be easy to conclude that at the most successful leaders would be those who can exercise moderate assertiveness.  The authors mentioned however that this is not their intent.  They said the benefit to being more moderate in assertiveness allows for greater flexibility and the ability to display a range of behaviours instead of the two extremes of low and high assertiveness.  Having the flexibility allows a person to venture into high and low levels of assertiveness, but not live there permanently.  

So how do we make sense of this and how can we avoid the extremes described in this study?  Ames and Flynn posit that there may be a lack of awareness of the managers assertive or non-assertive tendencies.  They may also perceive that if they are on the high levels of assertiveness, they will lose the instrumental gains they have made if they are less assertive.  Non-assertive leaders may perceive that if they were to become more assertive, then they would lose the social gains they have made.  

Is it possible for a manager to change?  That is up to the manager.  The study suggests that there are barriers to finding moderate assertiveness, such as genetics and perceptions.  It also suggestions with skills training programs and coaching it can lead to changes in behaviour.

To conclude, this study highlights the awareness of employees about assertiveness.  We can use this information to analyse our levels of assertiveness, determine if there are improvements to be made, and then take the necessary steps we need to change.  Perceptions of social cost and performance bring about the question, is it possible to achieve both?  The survey suggests that at least from the perception of your colleagues if you’re operating with moderate assertiveness you will be perceived more favourably by your colleagues.  Assertiveness as the Ames and Flynn described is “getting one's’ way while also getting along.”  I believe it is possible to achieve both.  

The authors highlighted that if moderate assertiveness is your approach to work you are less likely to receive any glory or attention for it.  Assertiveness is more likely to stand out in low or high levels.  So don’t expect a whole lot of credit and praise if you're exercising moderate assertiveness, but don’t be discouraged as your results and relationships with those around you will speak for themselves.


American Psychological Association


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