I recently had a conversation with Eric, a manager at a large manufacturing company in the Midwest. Normally a very peacekeeping, congenial person, he told me how, upon becoming the manager for his group, he had made a point to be forceful to push through his ideas. He was then perplexed when his team did not produce the results he had anticipated.
Sure, it may seem like strong leadership is all about driving ahead and commandeering the situation--that leaders are most successful when they are on the more aggressive and forceful end of what I call the "assertiveness" spectrum. But assertiveness is more complex than that.
In this column, my sixth in a multi-part series on how to best communicate as a leader, I'll cover assertiveness. You can check out my previous columns on how other approaches will help you get through to your team: analytical, structural, social, conceptual, and expressive.
Own Your Assertiveness Style
First, let me describe the two ends of the assertiveness spectrum. Before anything else, you need to understand where you fall. Managers who are on the driving end of the assertiveness spectrum tend to lead by influence; they're task-oriented, decisive, and have a hard-charging approach. Managers who are on the easy going end of the assertiveness spectrum, on the other hand, tend to be more approachable and have a calming presence, take the time to listen, and carefully phrase thoughts and opinions.
That self-awareness is only one factor in calibrating your assertiveness. The other is your way of then understanding your interaction with others. Sometimes your natural assertiveness style will work perfectly, but other times you'll need to flex your character to meet challenges and get the most out of employees.
Here are four tips to assert yourself in the right way, no matter where you personally fall on the spectrum:
1. Know your team.
A group of people who are even-keeled and amiable need you to take time to listen to their ideas and collaborate. On the other hand, employees who tend to drive things forward, need you to show that you're in control; give them directions, set deadlines, and empower them to do the same.
2. Assertive doesn't mean aggressive.
Being task-oriented and decisive, and having high expectations for others, is one thing. Raising your voice and beating your fists on the table will set a different tone altogether.
3. Peacekeepers can be dangerously close to pushovers.
Always communicating and getting things done by being non-confrontational and genial does not equate to continual harmony within your group. It can lessen influence and imperatives.
4. Read the room.
If you are keenly aware of yourself and your team, you can truly flex your assertiveness to your situation. Figure out when a little fiery language will stir the crowd to meet a tough deadline, or when people need even-toned conciliation to get through a stressful time.
Getting back to Eric, the Midwest manufacturing manager. I told him his most effective strategy is to be authentic, and embody his most natural assertiveness style. Then, whether you are driving ideas or bringing consensus to a group, the trick is to know how to fine-tune your approach.