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A Need for Assertiveness

Managers at all levels are not as effective as they can be.

May 20, 2009
Related Topics: Performance Management
Bill was a talented, skilled and highly valued employee. His supervisor, Gary, was the nicest guy you could imagine. He was experienced and compassionate. There was just one problem: He detested confrontation and seldom took any corrective action when things started going wrong. He never told is team his expectations — maybe he didn’t have any — and his people often hungered for direction. But everybody liked Gary, and that was his goal.

Unfortunately, because of Gary’s passive approach to management, Bill left his team to join a competitor. In an exit interview, he said, “I was always frustrated. I never knew what was expected of me.” Next, Gary was fired because his team consistently failed to meet assigned goals.

Managers at all levels are not as effective as they can be. Recently, while working on a leadership development project in a research organization, we surveyed managers, their bosses and their direct reports to determine perceived strengths and weakness. For the most part, the managers were viewed as having many valuable strengths that their bosses and subordinates admired. There was, however, one area in which managers consistently got low marks: assertiveness.

Intrigued, we asked managers if they could explain why they and their peers were getting low scores in this area. The managers were clueless. Most viewed assertiveness as aggressive and negative behavior. They actually perceived a low score as a positive statement, but it wasn’t.

To figure out what was going on, we visited with some of the managers’ subordinates. Subordinates consistently complained that they seldom had real clarity about what was expected of them, and because they had no clear objectives, they seldom got praise. And when they did, it often was a complete surprise.

Managers that lack assertiveness likely will never achieve the results possible, and seldom do these passive managers advance to more prominent leadership roles. Frequently, a manager’s ineffectiveness and the ineffectiveness of his or her team begin with the organization’s failure to provide training and education on the importance of being clear about expectations and the reasons for them.

Assertiveness training should be among the earliest efforts organizations make to develop managers. Managing assertively is not a natural ability; it is a learned ability, a skill. There are three foundational beliefs that drive assertiveness among managers and potential managers:
  • Believing it is important to take initiative as a manager.
  • Believing it is important, as a manager, to know what is important to employees and why it is so.
  • Believing it is important to communicate wants, feeling and dislikes in a clear way without threatening or attacking.
Taking initiative and being assertive often means believing that managers should be proactive rather than reactive to people and events. The ability to anticipate and act is a key trait of a successful manager, but it can involve risk because there is no certainty of outcome. A good example of taking initiative at the managerial level is addressing a direct report’s poor performance before it has bottom-line implications.

Many managers are reluctant to confront poor performance, but many subordinates want and need accountability to grow. Further, holding subordinates accountable for consistent, desired levels of performance is necessary for organizational success. Learning to express one’s feelings or beliefs clearly in this context requires that a manager understand his personal and professional values. Managers should be encouraged to express and understand their values on a regular basis.

Learning how to communicate wants, feelings and dislikes in a clear way without seeming to threaten or attack is a skill or learned ability, as well. Subordinates hunger for direction. They want to know what is expected of them, and they perform poorly without direction or clear objectives. Managers should learn to communicate the good and the bad in a way that employees will hear and react positively to. Managers who understand and become proficient with these skills likely will emerge as leaders in an organization.

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