The aggressive leader is hostile, adopting a “my way or the highway” stance. The passive leader is weak, easy to manipulate and only focused on keeping the peace. Both leadership styles are bound to fail as they hurt productivity and cause resentment. What leaders ought to aim for is the middle path – assertiveness. An assertive leader stands up for themselves and also for their team and organization. A non-assertive leader denies their own feelings, and ends up sacrificing their integrity and damaging their relationships with their followers, peers and superiors.
Assertiveness works. It is one of five leadership skills that predict managerial success, says analytics firm Gallup. Assertiveness also ranks among the top 25 soft skills required for success in remote work, according to a study by job search site FlexJobs and career-planning company PAIRIN. Leaders (and workers) who assert themselves come across as more confident, honest and with greater integrity. They are also less likely to be stressed and burn out.
Despite its many advantages, many leaders struggle with being assertive. It could be due to a lack of confidence, the fear of being disliked, self-doubt, or any other reason. Even those who are innately assertive have moments when they turn timid (in the presence of people they greatly admire, for example). Luckily, assertiveness is a learned skill, which is why more and more employees and employers are getting curious about assertiveness training and investing in it.
Assertiveness training, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies says, “is based on the idea that assertiveness is not inborn, but is a learned behavior. Although some people may seem to be more naturally assertive than others, anyone can learn to be more assertive.”
What is assertiveness?
Being assertive is the ability to freely express your thoughts and opinions even if they are unpopular, stand up for yourself, and exercise your rights without disrespecting the opinions of others and denying them their rights. Asserting yourself involves making yourself heard but also listening to others and offering feedback in a thoughtful manner. Very often, it means having the courage to say no, especially to unreasonable requests.
Assertiveness can be tricky to master for those in leadership roles. It’s about striking the right balance. Too much of it and you risk becoming an aggressive jerk. Too little of it and you look like a pushover. A good leader knows when to push hard and when to back off, depending on the situation and conditions.
What assertiveness doesn’t mean
- Being self-promoting: It is a misconception that being assertive means being self-serving or self-promoting. It is more appropriate to say that being assertive means to respect yourself and your views.
- Getting what you want all the time: Being assertive means expressing yourself while respecting the opinions of others and, quite often, coming to a compromise.
- Being assertive at all times: While it’s good to stand your ground, being assertive does not mean being inflexible. The trick is to know when to push ahead (declining a request for unpaid overtime) and when not to (fighting over where to order lunch from). If you assert yourself for even trivial matters, you might not be taken seriously when it actually counts.
With assertiveness training, leaders can…
- Fuel innovation: Innovation comes from change. And change is almost always met with resistance at first, even if it is ultimately welcomed. Assertiveness training gives managers and team leaders the courage and conviction to challenge the status quo and push new ideas to meet the company’s long-term goals, even if they face opposition from colleagues and seniors. If organizations get too comfortable with their existing conditions, some of the best ideas and innovations will remain forever buried.
- Build excellent relationships: By standing up for your team and allowing each member to voice their opinions and needs in an environment that appreciates such exchanges, you will earn the respect and admiration of those you lead. This will help you create authentic and lasting relationships.
- Delegate: Unlike micromanagers, assertive leaders don’t take on the work of others. Rather, they delegate tasks to each team member and do so clearly, leaving no room for confusion or ambiguity. Having earned the respect of their team members, assertive bosses do not shy away from delegating even the most difficult tasks. That’s not all. Assertive leaders aren’t afraid to hold others – and themselves – accountable for their actions.
To build influence, sign up for our Influencing Without Authority workshop.
- Collaborate: Teams led by assertive managers do well because they work in an inclusive environment where each team member has the freedom to speak their mind. By making all opinions count, even unpopular ones, assertive leaders foster teamwork and ensure that everyone shares in the success of a project.
- Manage conflict: Passive leaders avoid conflict. In fact, they are afraid of being assertive as they believe it will lead to conflict. Aggressive leaders address conflict but will most likely worsen the situation due to their high-handedness. Then there is the assertive leader who hears everyone out, understands the problem, and steers the team toward a solution that is acceptable to all. Leaders who have received assertiveness training are also better at having difficult conversations, which goes hand in hand with conflict management. This quality is especially important when the person you are going up against is not a colleague but a boss. You cannot fight for much-needed resources for your team or push back against policy decisions that are not in the interest of the organization without a healthy dose of assertiveness.
To learn conflict management, check out our workshop on Dealing with Conflict and Difficult People.
- Say no: One thing all non-assertive leaders struggle with is saying no. Assertiveness training teaches you that as a leader, your job is not to please others but to get the job done. This includes saying no and rejecting unreasonable requests without feeling guilty. An assertive leader knows how to set firm boundaries on their time, availability and responsibilities.
What all these examples tell us is that assertiveness is not a stand-alone skill but one that enhances your other leadership qualities, like sharpening your communication skills.
Assertive communicator: What it takes to be one
Whenever there is talk of assertiveness training, the term “assertive communication” comes up. That’s because effective communication and assertiveness are interdependent skills. Clinical psychologist Dr. Sheva Assar explains that assertive communication is simply “expressing your perspective in a clear and direct way that is respectful of both your experiences as well as those of the listener.”
How do you become an assertive communicator? Well, you need to master certain verbal and non-verbal communication skills. First, the verbal skills:
- Speak for yourself: Being assertive is about speaking one’s mind unapologetically, but without unduly hurting the other party’s feelings. A key lesson in assertiveness training is to learn to use ‘I’ statements – I think…, I work better when…, etc. – as these allow you to speak for yourself but without sounding confrontational.
- Speak with clarity: Be clear and precise when conveying your views. For example, “Can you please not walk away when we’re talking?” works better than “Can you not act that way?”
- Be persistent: When the other party is antagonistic and simply refuses to listen, an assertive communicator sticks to their guns and repeats themselves, but without sounding rude. This “broken record technique” is an effective way of sending a strong and consistent message that cannot be ignored.
- Use positive language: “Stop interrupting me when I speak” adopts a confrontational and threatening tone. An assertive speaker uses positive rather than negative language. “If I could finish first, I’d love to hear what you have to say” sounds much better.
- Listen well: Assertive communication encourages two-way conversation. Therefore, allow others to speak and be a good listener. Only by listening will you fully understand a problem or situation. When you interrupt the other party, do so to gain clarity and information. You can ask open-ended questions such as a) what do you make of it?, b) can you tell me more?, c) what could be done to help the situation?
- Use the power of silence: If the other party adamantly refuses to listen to you and is growing increasingly hostile, don’t give in to the urge to lash back at them. A more effective way of reclaiming control of the conversation is to take a few moments of silence before you respond. While it’s easy to give in to your anger and frustration, taking the time to reorganize your thoughts and speak calmly will help you minimise conflict and get you that much closer to a solution.
Apart from what you say, being an assertive communicator is also about adopting the right body language and tone when you speak. Here are the non-verbal skills all assertive communicators ought to skill up on:
- Be attentive and make eye contact. This shows the other party that you are not intimidated.
- Adopt an assertive stance. If you’re too rigid, you come across as aggressive. If you slouch, you will be perceived as weak and lacking confidence. Show the right amount of strength and casualness.
- Keep your facial expressions neutral. Avoid dismissive gestures such as rolling your eyes.
- Keep your tone of voice strong but free of anger.
For more details, read our blog on the six ways to be effectively assertive here.
Tips on practicing assertiveness
Before you go, here are some tips to help you on your way to becoming an assertive leader:
- Identify your values and needs and commit to them, even if it means being the only person in the room to speak up.
- Keep a record of problematic behaviors so that you can use them as examples, if required. Facts speak louder than feelings. But be careful not to adopt a blaming tone.
- Practice assertiveness. Rehearse conversations, practice making eye contact and try out assertive postures and poses. It helps. If you are worried about a difficult conversation you need to have with your team, roleplaying with a friend will help you prepare for the different responses you might get and ensure you are not caught off-guard or lose momentum.
- Learn how to communicate with non-assertive colleagues. If the other party is aggressive, acknowledge their feelings. If they are passive, encourage them to contribute to the conversation by asking for their opinion.
- Sign up for a workshop to develop your assertiveness and leadership skills, or speak to your manager to help you attend one. Learnit offers a great workshop on Communication Strategies that teaches professionals to communicate assertively and honorably.
You might also be interested in the Learnit playbooks – free resources for upskilling, learning and development.