Leadership Assertiveness: Average Is Perfect

How much should a manager push people to perform? How much assertiveness works best?

If you’re too assertive, you can damage relationships and be perceived as a micro-managing busy-body. If you don’t push enough and hold them accountable then it’s easy for people to miss tough goals.

What is “just right” management? Two researchers, Daniel Ames of Columbia University, and Francis Flynn of Stanford University wanted to find out what was the right amount of assertiveness for bosses. They speculated that the best bosses would be rated average on terms like competitive, aggressive, passive, and submissive by followers.

These two researchers asked 213 MBA students to rate their most recent boss’s assertiveness. As predicted, moderately assertive bosses were rated as most effective overall, most likely to succeed in the future, and someone they would work with again.

Keeping a close eye on people often either has no effect on performance or undermines it. Effective bosses know it’s sometimes best to leave people  alone. When you ask frequent questions you interrupt people’s work. It’s annoying and ineffective. They become less creative by sticking to tried and true paths.

In the work I do coaching executives, this is one of the major issues we discuss. Many bosses have no idea how they come across when they’re managing people. And usually they are either too involved, or not involved enough.

However, Ames and Flynn avoid recommending middle-of-the-road management all the time. Often, executives were unaware of how others viewed their behaviors, the scientists wrote in their research paper published in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“It’s not that they need to push less hard, but sometimes assertive people just need to add some additional behaviors to their repertoire,” Ames said. “And one example of that would be listening. A lot of people who are high in assertiveness could benefit from working on their listening skills.”

With an open ear, a manager might also get feedback from employees. “One reason is because people typically don’t get candid feedback on things like assertiveness,” Ames said. “Who wants to tell the overbearing boss that he or she is a jerk?”

Next time you’re giving out some “managerial encouragement,” make sure you’re sprinkling in a good dose of “asking and listening” along with it.

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