New managers need to learn assertiveness

Apr 11 2008 by Dan Bobinski Print This Article

In another installment from the True Story files, Joanne was listening to a manager from another department getting snippy with her over the phone.

"What's wrong with you people?" he said, his voice rising in anger. "You pretty much do nothing all day long! All I'm asking is that you do your jobs. Why can't you get my simple request processed?"

As a new supervisor, Joanne was unaccustomed to such brash confrontations. But it was just this morning his request for work came in - and without all the proper paperwork. Moreover, other work had been flagged as higher priority.

To make matters worse, the manager on the other end of the phone had a lot of seniority, and he was famous for yelling without anyone challenging him. Getting on his bad side was not something she really wanted to do.

Perhaps you've been in Joanne's position. When you're not experienced, such heated conversations can be tough.

An Essential Supervisor's Skill

A good skill for new supervisors to acquire early on is tactful assertiveness. Notice I didn't say "sugarcoat the truth" or "roll over." Nor did I say "be demanding." Maintaining a professional demeanor is an extremely valuable skill, but it doesn't come easy. Getting there requires a lot of reasoned thinking.

According to the book Asserting Yourself, you can teach yourself ways to remain professional when the pressure is on, but it takes practice.

The book also teaches that when disagreements occur, it doesn't mean one person has to win and the other person has to lose. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

A main tenet in assertiveness is not simply to "win," but to find a way for both parties to have a win.

There is no perfect, magical way to do this, but letting the other person know you understand his/her position usually sets a good foundation. The real trick is avoiding the bait of any personal jabs while identifying the real issue.

Key In on the Real Issues

So lets' review what the manager said to Joanne:

  1. What's wrong with you people? (personal jab)
  2. You pretty much do nothing all day long. (personal jab)
  3. All I'm asking is that you do your jobs. (personal jab)
  4. Why can't you get my simple request processed? (the real issue)

It's difficult, but being assertive includes not taking the bait of the personal jabs that will most assuredly lead the conversation away from the real issue. Again, this takes practice. If we try to wing it, we usually end up swallowing some bait - along with a hook.

To acknowledge the manager's perspective, Joanne has several options. Rephrasing is a good approach. It's hard to associate voice tone in written form, but rephrasing might sound like "I understand that you're wanting to know the status of your request." Or, "Mr. Jones, you sound very concerned about this. To clarify, you're wanting to know how far along your request is in our system?"

Pay Attention to Your Voice Tone

Voice tone is vital, because rephrasing must be done without any judgment, mocking, or disrespect. Best selling author Stephen Covey calls this "consideration."

After the manager's position is shown respectful consideration comes what Covey calls "courage," the need to stand up for your own position. Again, this needs to be done professionally, and how it's done will vary situation by situation. No one magic formula exists.

In this situation it may be good for Joanne to put a bit of a time cushion between the manager's anger and her response. She could say she'll look into the matter and call him back. This gives her time to think through her response, and also time for his emotions to cool down.

Balance the Perspectives

When she does respond, it will be good for her to remain concerned for his needs, but firm on her department's policies. One way to do it might sound like this:

"I see that your request is related to the xxx project and that it's an important component of that. In looking at our schedule, our workload today has some jobs flagged as high priority that you may not have been aware of. All our personnel are tied up on those projects. But while I have you on the phone, I have your request here in front of me, and I notice some of the information is missing from the form. Can I get that from you now, or would you rather I talk with someone else about it?"

Again, this is just one way to approach it. No magic phrasing exists. She just needs to remain politely firm on the needs of her department while also looking for a way that his request might get expedited.

Bottom line, we can't wing win/win thinking. But verbal challenges can be addressed tactfully and professionally as long as we've thought through a process for how to do it.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Daniel Bobinski teaches teams and individuals how to use emotional intelligence and how to create high impact training. Heís also a best-selling author, a popular speaker, and he loves helping teams and individuals achieve workplace excellence