The Productive Leader: Positive Assertive Skills
Geraldine Markel, PhD
“That quarterly report they submitted is garbage, but their boss never called them on it. She always lets them get away with doing the least amount of work possible.”
“If you ask my manager, he always says everything is going great here, even though everyone in the department knows it isn’t—far from it.”
Have you observed leaders who can’t say no or confront sub-par performance? Isn’t it maddening to watch them ignore or deny the negative behaviors of their staff or team until the office atmosphere completely deteriorates? They don’t want to rock the boat, but their lack of assertiveness contributes to low productivity and high stress.
Good leaders are expected to manage a variety of employees and assignments so that projects are completed on time, to specifications, and within budget. Leaders are also charged with keeping their team accomplishments in line with the overall corporate vision. As studies of outstanding leadership characteristics have shown, guiding people in a work setting requires the ability to clarify, inform, monitor, and motivate. It takes positive assertiveness to fulfill all of these responsibilities.
Assertiveness means clearly expressing what is needed in an honest and polite way, preferably in a positive and non-distracting setting. A positive assertive leader is not arrogant, over-controlling, or insensitive; he or she respects the rights and contributions of others but also provides clear, direct information about when things are going well—and when they are not.
Leaders who value productivity assert their leadership role by:
- Differentiating between activities or persons that are contributing to high productivity (or project completion) and those that are not.
- Engaging others and brainstorming to identify the root causes of performance gaps.
- Providing clear standards and timelines, as well as concrete ways to measure progress and calculate risks, costs, and benefits.
- Accessing resources when necessary and providing solution-based action plans.
- Monitoring (or delegating a monitor) to ensure quality and project completion.
- Reinforcing those who are actively meeting expectations.
The benefits of positive assertiveness are clear. This kind of leadership behavior:
- Reduces confusion and frustration due to fuzzy parameters, poor directions, or lack of follow up.
- Provides motivation and support that workers need to complete their assignments, as well as praise and reinforcement for jobs well done.
- Maintains a broader perspective on corporate visions and goals, using metrics to measure the difference between desired and actual performance.
A fundamental problem is the erroneous assumption that promising employees either happen to be born with these skills or that they will somehow “pick them up” along the way. In fact, most people need to actively learn these skills from a trusted source, be it print/media, a training program, or an on-the-job mentor.
Without instruction, some leaders don’t recognize the need for constant vigilance; they may confuse a “hands-off management style” with a total lack of oversight. However, failing to perceive the signs or signals of impending problems can leave them reactive rather than proactive. Others are conflicted about their leadership status and hesitate to exert their authority. They may fear push back or negative feelings from their “office buddies,” or they may have been conditioned to avoid conflict most of their careers; they just don’t know what to do when they are out of their comfort zone. Still others are indecisive and keep changing their minds about expectations, standards, or timelines.
Whatever the reason, a leader without positive assertiveness skills may not be a leader for long in today’s results-oriented, competitive business atmosphere. Upper management expects that when things go awry, it is the leader’s responsibility to respond and resolve. If this is an area where your skills need strengthening, start by becoming more aware and engaged. Apply the action steps below to situations in your workplace.
10 tips for the use of positive assertiveness by leaders:
- Make a commitment to stretch your use of positive assertive skills.
- Prioritize issues that are most critical to address. For example, ask, “What do I need as a leader? What do I expect from my staff? What do others need from me to get the job done?”
- Mull over the possible best and worst consequences of positive assertiveness.
- Remember that being polite doesn’t mean side-stepping difficult issues.
- Ask and actively listen during brainstorming and problem solving. Remember the old adage, “Two heads are better than one.”
- Focus on performance and productivity, rather than personality issues.
- Consider a 3 or 4:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback. This ensures that the positives are maintained.
- Include evidence to support your view of desired performance or lack of it.
- Start small and easy. Perhaps practice skills in social or community organizations.
- Upgrade your skills. If you lack training, sign up for brief, hands-on seminars, arrange for an executive coach to provide scripts and practice, or find a mentor who can model the skills.
Promotion to a leadership position is a formidable challenge as well as a wonderful opportunity for growth and fulfillment. Whether you came to these responsibilities through your outstanding technical skills, analytical prowess, big-picture vision, or other strengths, you still need to hone communication skills such as positive assertiveness. It is no dishonor to seek out further training and practice in management skills; rather, it shows that you are both proactive and—of course—positively assertive!
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