There are plenty of headlines about blunt and crass remarks made by world leaders. And in the working environment, I am sure we have witnessed similar comments. Nothing new there. But recently there has been a tendency to explain away these comments, even an attempt to justify them as signs of an ‘assertive leader’ because they are ‘telling it like it is’. Let’s be clear: blunt and crass remarks are signs of a weak leader who is too afraid to let anyone disagree. It is a fear-driven attempt to manipulate people into agreeing with them, and this is an example of aggression, not assertiveness.
It is not just world leaders who exert themselves with aggression. I have worked with clients who have suffered stress and anxiety which is the direct result of aggressive behaviour from a manager or colleague. I have also worked with managers who have felt trapped in a toxic work environment, and it has taken a long time for them to realise that the conflict at work was due, at least in part, to their own aggressive managerial style.
I am going to place a bet on the basic goodness of mankind and assume that most leaders do not intend to lead using aggressive behaviour. Perhaps they just know no other way of relating to people, or they do not realise that squeezing out the views of others is simply not okay. They may not even see or hear the views of others, because if they have never been taught to watch and listen, how could they?
In a study published in 2014 Daniel Ames and Abbie Wazlawek found that there was a significant difference between how a worker viewed himself compared with how his colleagues viewed him (Pushing in the Dark, Columbia University): A “large share of those seen as showing too little or too much assertiveness appear to be unaware” and “many people seen as getting assertiveness right mistakenly think they are seen as getting it wrong”. Ames and Wazlawek strikingly conclude: “oblivious jerks may indeed be as common as knowing ones and unwitting pushovers may indeed be as widespread as self-conscious ones”. But also, to their surprise, they also found that “many of those seen as having the right touch think that they have gone too far.
So what might explain this discrepancy? It might be a genuine case of lack of awareness, on behalf of the leaders, or perhaps the actual employees. Or it might be that people don’t really understand what assertiveness means.
Assertiveness sits in the middle of a spectrum where aggression is at the one end and passivity is at the other –
Aggression = Leaders are aggressive when they attempt to dominate others without respecting the rights or boundaries of others.
Passivity = The opposite of aggression is a failure to communicate one’s needs, and/or to allow others to encroach on your boundaries. Sometimes this is as a result of fear of, or failure to, assert one’s rights. This behaviour can also be an attempt to manipulate someone into doing something that they want.
Assertiveness = Assertive leaders communicate their own needs in a way which respects the rights of others. They listen carefully to those around them, and they are flexible in their approach. It is a careful balancing act of maintaining one’s own boundaries without encroaching on the boundaries of others.
Nobody is assertive all of the time. We can all lean towards aggression or passivity, depending on internal factors (such as anxiety, depression, stress levels), and depending on external factors (for example, we may become passive around certain types of people). But to maintain more of a middle ground on this spectrum, here is a quick reminder of the seven sides of assertiveness –
1. Assertiveness includes the ability to make requests, to say no, to give and receive compliments, and to give and receive criticism. To evaluate your own level of assertiveness, ask yourself: ‘How easy is it for me to do these things? For example, how much do I do what I want to do, and how much do I do what others want me to? How easy is it to say no?’
2. It might be useful to carry out a cost-benefit analysis in order to assess whether you should assert yourself in any given situation. There may be good reasons for not asking for what you would like.
3. When you attempt to communicate assertively, keep it brief and get to the point.
4. Make sure you do not offer inappropriate apologies or smiles. Also, do not expect them to agree with you, or you expect them to say no. You are assertively communicating how you view the situation, or what your needs or feelings are. You are not seeking their approval of these.
5. Some have offered the image of a swaying tree when they try to describe assertiveness. It may sway a little in the winds of challenge, but it remains rooted in the ground. In the face of a challenge, a calm repetition of your position is all that is needed to demonstrate assertive communication. If it helps, try and imagine that you have your two feet placed within a box, and this is your own space for your own views, feelings and needs. You can describe this viewpoint to other people but they do not have to accept it, just as you are not under any obligation to accept the viewpoint of others.
6. If you continue to be challenged, you can communicate empathy with the other person’s position, and perhaps even offer alternatives.
7. A useful tactic is to ask for more time, or for more information. You do not necessarily have to offer a response there and then.
Assertiveness requires self-awareness, but it also requires a certain knowledge of how others perceive our behaviour. As Ames & Wazlawek point out, this can be quite difficult as this relies on feedback from others. This is not always going to be forthcoming or as candid as we would hope for, especially if it is feedback from a current work colleague or line manager. As Ames and Wazlawek put it, “we are often pushing in the dark and our counterparts may sometimes be complicit in turning out the lights—or even firing up a beacon that leads us astray”.
According to research, assertiveness ‘is a highly valuable characteristic’ and ‘leaders who are perceived as being more assertive are also perceived as being more honest and having higher integrity than those who are not’ (Joseph Folkman, Forbes). Some say that assertiveness can also lead to a less stressful lifestyle. If you feel able to communicate your needs, and you have stronger, healthier relationships as a result, it is arguable that this would make life a little less stressful. I have not yet seen hard empirical evidence to say one way or the other, but coming across a little less like some of our world leaders may be a strength to be proud of.
Chris Warren-Dickins LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Ridgewood New Jersey NJ 07450.
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