Don't be too assertive

Oct 25 2006 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Too much assertiveness in a boss, like too much salt in a sauce, spoils the dish. In fact U.S. researchers have found that being too assertive is just as damaging for business leaders as not being assertive enough.

Organisational behaviour expert Frank Flynn argues that while charisma, intelligence, drive and conscientiousness are all important characteristics for business leaders, assertiveness is the real key to their success or failure.

In research to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Flynn and collaborator Daniel Ames suggest that excessive or inadequate assertiveness is the single biggest factor in determining whether or not an individual has real leadership potential

The discovery emerged from observations Flynn and Ames made while teaching an organisational behaviour course at the Columbia Business School.

The class assignment required students to obtain anonymous feedback on their leadership and management styles from former work colleagues.

"Again and again, the issue of too much or too little assertiveness came up in evaluations of students' weaknesses," says Flynn, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

"It was hard to miss, yet we realised this issue had barely been addressed in the research literature."

Analysing three years' worth of written and survey data on students, as well as students' assessments of their own former bosses, Flynn and Ames found that excessive or inadequate assertiveness was the number one issue cited in the weakness column when it came to evaluating individuals' leadership potential.

"It was mentioned twice as frequently as any other issue. It appeared as a clear factor in weakness comments more than lack of intelligence, conscientiousness, and charisma combined," Flynn said.

Specifically, what the researchers found was essentially an "inverted U" between the ratings of a person's assertiveness and his or her leadership ability: up to a certain point it was positively associated, but then it went back down.

"The analogy we use is that assertiveness is like salt in a sauce: Too much spoils the dish, but too little is equally distracting," Flynn said.

"While getting assertiveness wrong in one direction or the other dominates perceptions of weakness, getting it right is not a major theme in perceptions of strengths," he added.

"In other words, nobody ever compliments the chef on a perfectly salted dish."

But when people were determined to be extremely assertive, the social costs of their behaviour - others' hurt feelings and damaged relationships - were seen to override the positive aspects of their ability to get the job done.

On the flip side, when they were too passive, their inability to move projects along and achieve goals was what stuck in people's minds, not their ability to preserve social harmony.

"People pay more attention to what's bad about assertive or non-assertive behaviour than what's good about it," Flynn explained.

A critical management skill is therefore knowing how to get your way and get along, he argued.

"We're not suggesting that people should always be moderately assertive as a general guideline. A better way to think about it might be that a good leader knows how to pick their spots - when to come on strong and when to hang back."

A big part of effective assertiveness management, he said, is being aware of how your behaviour affects others. As it turns out, this is easer for the meek than the mighty.

"Very unassertive people generally realise they're too passive and are getting stepped on," Flynn said, "but aggressive people tend to have no clue as to how they're being perceived. Getting honest or anonymous feedback from others can help with this."