Busting myths around assertive behaviour

As I gradually progress in my career, I notice quite a few places asking for ‘assertive leadership skills’ as a requirement in the endless bullet list of skills and experiences. Being assertive, however, is not something that many of us understand – not only in the job market, but also in our personal and familial relationships. Are we ‘assertive’ when we tell our children not to have too many snacks or eat their vegetables? Are we ‘assertive’ when we draw a line on what we are and what we not comfortable with in a sexual relationship? Fundamentally, being ‘assertive’ is showing a level of confidence and forceful demeanour; and yet, precisely because there a ‘level of’ involved, this means that assertive behaviour is a balance that needs to be weighed in at every decision-making opportunity.

In what follows, I will show that on occasion many of us will not act assertively because we confuse ‘assertive’ behaviour with other traits. It is by missing the balance between that we often slip into one of the following myths that I intend on ‘busting’.

“I don’t want to be rude”

Being assertive is not quite the same as being rude, though it is certainly the case that the two are often confused in our perception of others’ behaviour. Being rude, in fact, is more synonymous with aggressive behaviour – a behaviour that has at its core to impose one’s will over someone else. 1 You will often encounter a Venn diagram that distinguishes between our needs and those of others, where the intersecting part is where assertive behaviour lies.

Assertive leadership skills Venn diagram

Being assertive involves a notice or understanding of what the needs of all parties are. Our needs are not meant to be subjected to those of other; however, and crucially, this also means that the needs of others are not subjected to ours. Assertive behaviour is thus a realisation of the importance of needs of all parties involved. This does not mean that we have to act to accommodate all the parties – quite the opposite, assertive behaviour is about making sacrifices to our needs and those of others so that we may reach a mutually beneficial agreement (or deadline, etc.). The worry that one may come across as rude is thus a very understandable one. After all, we often have to show where others’ needs will have to be ‘put on hold’ or even ‘put aside’.

There is nevertheless something we can do when approach others when worried about coming across as rude. When such a worry arises, the first thing we should ask ourselves is whether our behaviour is one that places our needs at the same level as that of others. Do we consider others’ needs as important as our own? Or do we place less / more importance to them? This balance is difficult to find and going into conversation with others is usually the best way to find out.

Pro tip: when worried about coming across as rude, remember that the best way to come to terms with others is by dealing with facts and figures. Some things are indisputable, and as rational human beings we are, generally, willing to put our emotions aside in order to resolve incompatibilities between our needs and those of others (at least in the long run). And this applies as much to the working environment as it does to personal relationships.

“I should not show signs of anxiety or concern”

Though I admittedly have not experienced this much in person, it is a commonly shown flaw in popular tv-shows that expressing concerns about the outcomes, the feasibility of deadlines, or even the simplest re-interpretation of tasks, is a sign of weakness and should be avoided. I have especially heard of this mentality from my colleagues in the East and China in particular. The dominant rule of thumb seems to be that ‘positive thinking’ is what is going to get us to the right results. The reality is far from this – ‘positive thinking’ is an empty phrase without any content. What gets things done is organisation in the broadest sense of the word – and every successful organisation depends on realistic goals, outcomes, assessments and achievements.

In fact, treating concern and anxiety over outcomes or goals as signs of weakness is bound to create a working environment where every single real ‘weakness’ (different forms of failure to deliver) is ‘treated away’, ‘covered up’, ‘set aside’. When anxiety is treated as a weakness, we are breeding a culture of anxiety – employees being more anxious than they should be.

And so, quite the opposite is the case when it comes to assertive behaviour – being assertive is acknowledging anxiety and concerns of others; it is about speaking up when faced with challenges and building credibility with employers and employees; and it is about creating a working environment where challenges are understood as challenges instead of impossible demands. In the long run, this kind of assertiveness builds characters that protects the organisation rather than aims to cover all manners of failures under a rug.

Pro tip: While concerns over outcomes and deadlines are more than normal, assertive behaviour leadership is most effective when such concerns are structured through storytelling. Have we witnessed similar concerns in the past? Have we overcome them? What have we learnt in the process? We are as human being able to imagine ourselves in different roles and circumstances (hence the success of novels, cinema, music) – a structured story can transport us into different timelines and instil in us different kinds of demands. Obviously, this is not to say that we should invent whatever story so that we can achieve our end! This will, at best, be a short-term victory with long-term defeat of purpose.

“I am supposed to be able to do everything myself”

Out of all the myths that I am ‘busting’ here, this one I feel closest to. I am used to work on my own and I certainly do not trust my colleagues to take over something that I have created and trust that it will end up will (let alone ending up better). And yet, the more you grow in your career the more you will have to let go and more trust you will have to have in your colleagues abilities. It is all too common to think that all tasks at hand are your sole responsibility because you are ultimately responsible for those tasks.

What this leads to is a behaviour that is less to do with assertive leadership and more with ‘going above and beyond the call of duty’. Aiming to do everything yourself and to deliver without question is, as the analogy shows, a military exercise – and while appreciated by upper management (or whatever), it is hardly behaviour that is assertive. It will, in fact, lead to lack of motivation and ill-health, or even burnouts.

That said, assertive behaviour and leadership is not about delegation only. It is about setting reasonable boundaries around our abilities while remaining helpful to others. It is about that Venn diagram above where our needs are met with those of others. Knowing these limits and boundaries and working with them is how we reach a level of confidence where we can deliver what we say we can deliver, where we can ask for help while remaining confident of our abilities, and where we can help out our colleagues without falling behind on our own tasks.

Pro tip: Asking for help is particularly important here. Assertive leadership is not one that dictates tasks (a robot can do that), but one that shows which tasks are better suited to which group or team, what resources are required and how much time should be provided to work to a deadline with a desirable result. Or what is often said to students when training them for presentations – it is all about knowing who your audience is.

“I should be modest”

Modesty is tricky, because nobody really likes someone who is not – or at the very least, nobody wants to be around them for too long whether at work or in a close personal relationship. But modesty also takes a wrong form in many situations and can be particularly unhelpful. When speaking of modestly here it is a particular kind of modesty that I am thinking, which I hope will become evident once I explain how it is the opposite of being assertive.

The first form of modesty belongs to the category of people who are unable to accept praise. To be sure, most of us recognise ourselves in such a situation on some occasions. Remember that girl or boy who called you cute and all you could mutter is a random stream of words? Nevertheless, when you do well, when you have ‘gone above and beyond the call of duty’, then it is particularly important to show that you know that and show that you understand the appreciation by the upper management.

This is the case because on the one hand it is good for you to understand your value – your value at your organisation is determined by your performance and knowing that can be very beneficial for your self-esteem and self-worth.2 What is more, and on the other hand, showing appreciation tells others that your time is worth something and the expectations your colleagues have of you should be of an equivalent (and perhaps even higher) value. It shows to colleagues that if they have an expectation from you, it should be one worthy of your merit.

The second form of modesty is related to what we just said, it comes from an inability to recognise your strengths and weaknesses. Not knowing what we are capable of leads to a stagnation and lack of self-development. There is nothing inherently wrong about saying that are good or even excel in doing something. We should be clear that remaining modest in such cases can be particularly unproductive. To say that ‘I am actually good at this and have quite some experience in this role – shall I take the lead in this project?’ is what assertive (and not arrogant) leadership is all about. This shows where your contribution comes from, especially if you back it up with additional information on your experience where your colleagues can make an informed decision.

Pro tip: No pro tip was summoned, sorry!

“That’s not what’s expected of a man/woman”

To a large degree, this kind of thinking no longer takes place in most organisations, though I think it clear that on occasion it still does – perhaps more so on a personal level and at work. Some gendered stereotypes in particular are hard to overcome; and assertive behaviour in particular is fraught with gendered stereotypes. Think how often people oppose assertive behaviour to aggression and dominance on the one hand, and passivity and meekness on the other.

These kinds of juxtapositions are not particularly helpful – particularly because assertive behaviour is about understanding of our needs and needs of others. It is about placing an equal value and treating these with equal importance. Yes, women need to be heard and women show to be equally apt in leadership roles as men are; but once again, this has little to do with assertive behaviour being itself gendered. What matters when it comes to assertive leadership skills is to what degree collegiality can be shown independent of gender.

Pro tip: Now that we have come to an end, it is perhaps time to think whom we admire as assertive leaders. I do emphasise assertive, and not leaders in general. We may all admire Ceasar or Alexander, but to be frank, we know very little about their assertive leadership skills. Instead, I propose that we look at leadership closer to home – at work, or family members, or partners. Assertive behaviour is one that can be learnt by looking closely at how others lead and learning, initially, by imitation. I say initially, because inevitably we will have to find our own voice in the matter in order to become assertive leaders of our own.

Finally, because assertive behaviour depends on a balance that needs to be weighed in every single time that we make a decision, it can become extremely tiring. For that very reason assertive behaviour is often replaced by the other traits – aggression or short temper on the one hand, or easily giving in to others’ needs on the other. Having knowledge of what these traits are for us – i.e. learning to place your own needs at the same level as the needs of others – should help us understand how to act assertively.

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  1. This is very similar to von Clausewitz’ definition of war – a quintessential notion of aggression rather than assertion – “War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.” Yes, I am aware that almost nobody got further than the first Book – I have and, albeit the whole of the middle is outdated, Book VIII is infinitely more interesting and relevant to our understanding of war.
  2. Sidenote: I mean, capitalism at its best here!

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