There’s a long-standing misconception about assertiveness, and it’s that being assertive means you have to be bossy or aggressive. On the contrary, true assertiveness is about being able to communicate in a positive and constructive way while respecting others and being respected yourself.
Assertiveness is a valuable attribute. It will help you get ahead in many areas of your life and it will enable you to have good relationships with others where boundaries are respected. But it’s not necessarily an attribute that comes naturally and if often has to be learned.
In this blog, we’re going to look at why some people find it hard to be assertive, the positive habits and behaviours of assertive people, and how as leaders, we can help others to become more assertive.
Here’s why being assertive is the key to effective leadership.
Why do some people find it hard to be assertive?
Difficulties with being assertive can often be traced back to childhood. When a child grows up in a healthy home where boundaries are respected and they are listened to, they end up being more able to make good choices for themselves and ask for what they want. But if a child grows up in an emotionally unhealthy home, they often find it very hard to stand up for themselves and state their needs. This patterns usually repeats itself throughout their lives, in relationships and at work.
- Some people have more naturally passive personalities
- A belief that people will like them if they agree with them
- Wanting to please others
- Feeling threatened or intimidated by strong personalities
- A lack of confidence in their opinions, ideas, and abilities
- A fear of making mistakes
- The belief that they’ll appear aggressive if they are assertive
Being young and lacking in experience – confidence can often come with age and experience
How can you become more assertive?
The good news about assertiveness, is that it’s a skill that can be learned. You can learn how to become more assertive by looking at the habits and behaviours of assertive people.
They use ‘winning’ language
Assertive people communicate in such a way that lets other people know they are in control. When an assertive person speaks, they’ll:
- Use lots of ‘I’ statements
- Speak in direct, concise language
- Demonstrate understanding and empathy
- Easily build rapport with others
- Maintain a good posture and eye contact
- Have confidence in what they are saying
Assertive people listen
Assertive people know that listening is just as important as speaking because it builds good relationships. You’ll notice that they:
- Paraphrase what has been said
- Ask open questions to draw out information-questions starting with ‘how’ or ‘what’
- Maintain eye contact and nodding to show they are engaged in the conversation
- Reflect back to the other person what they think is being said
Body language conveys assertiveness
Research has shown that only about 7% of what you say conveys your message. Your voice and your body language tells people far more about you. Assertive people:
- Stand or sit up straight and adopt a strong posture – slouching shows people that you lack confidence.
- Use gestures appropriately to get their message across.
- Speak clearly, calmly, and at the right pace. Assertiveness doesn’t mean speaking louder than someone else!
- Maintain appropriate eye contact. Constant eye contact can be interpreted as aggressive or it might make the other person feel uncomfortable, so use it appropriately and naturally.
Helping team members become more assertive
You might be thinking ‘I’m assertive enough, thank you very much,’ and that’s great. But as a manager, you have to lead a team of people with very different personalities. Some will be assertive or even aggressive and others will remain passive and want to blend into the background. While you definitely don’t want aggressive people on your team, when team members fail to be assertive, this can have a negative impact on them and the team.
People who aren’t assertive can fail to meet their potential. They are often people pleasers who want to steer clear of any difficult situations because they don’t want to upset the apple cart.
Think about your team members. Is there anyone you can think of who:
- Can’t say no, even when the demands being made on them are completely unrealistic? This can result in them taking on too much, becoming overwhelmed, and falling behind.
- Avoids taking any kind of risks or showing initiative?
- Doesn’t contribute ideas and opinions in meetings?
Spotting a passive person
A person who lacks assertiveness will:
- Say things like ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but…” or “ I’m probably mistaken, but…” (note that ‘I’m sorry to bother you can also be just general politeness, so take into account the full picture)
- Find it hard to make eye contact
- Will slouch and keep their head down
- Will display anxious gestures like tapping their pen or fidgeting
- Speak very quietly
How can managers help team members become more assertive?
There are some things you can do to help your more passive team members become more assertive and fulfil their potential.
- Look at the culture of the team/organisation- are people encouraged to express their views and ideas without fear of ridicule? Work on creating an environment where people feel willing and able to do so.
- Look at the team itself – is there a balance between dominant and passive personalities? Do the stronger personalities tend to ‘take over?’ Are there cultural differences that impact the way some people are perceived or on the way they behave?
- Create opportunities for less assertive people to contribute – ask for their opinion in meetings, but avoid making it seem like you’re singling them out.
- Bring out the best in less assertive team members- not everyone is an assertive extrovert and it’s not up to you as a manager to try and change people. What you should focus on instead is supporting them to be the best they can be. Have a conversation with them about assertiveness. Talk about how you can support them. It’s not as simple as just saying ‘be more assertive!’ it’s about understanding why they behave as they do and asking what you can do to help make being assertive a little easier for them. Don’t ‘blame’ someone for not being assertive or get irritated by it as it’s likely to make the situation worse.
Be a model of healthy assertiveness
As I mentioned earlier, being assertive is not about being aggressive or bossy. It’s not about discouraging your team members from being assertive with your autocratic behaviour. Instead, show team members that you can act assertively, treat people with respect, fairness, and empathy, and they are far more likely to feel able to be open and contribute.
Address problems with a lack of assertiveness
- Offer the team member informal coaching or mentoring
- Work on creating an open, supportive environment where people feel able to speak up
- Provide training on assertiveness
- Help less assertive team members increase their confidence by giving them the chance to improve their skills or use their strengths more at work.
- Give people constructive and regular feedback on how they are doing and recognise a job well done.
Assertiveness and gender
So many factors can impact on how assertiveness is perceived and received in the workplace, and gender is one of them.
Are you a female manager who’s been called bossy when you’ve been assertive? According to research carried out by The Center for Creative Leadership on the role of the word bossy, you’re not alone. The research found that being perceived as bossy had negative consequences for both genders, but for women, there was a stronger association.
Women who were perceived as bossy were seen as being more unpopular and less successful than their bossy male counterparts. The findings also showed that men are just as likely to be bossy in the workplace, so why do women get the bossy tag more often?
It can be argued that girls are conditioned from a young age to follow gender norms like being passive and quiet, and not asserting their needs. When they then demand respect and assert their needs, they are labelled as bossy. There’s also a perception that to do well in the workplace, women need to act more like men. But the truth is, whatever your gender, you should focus on being effective, more self-aware, and collaborative – then you won’t have to be ‘bossy’ to get where you want to be.
Are you actually bossy?
Assertiveness and bossiness are not the same thing. Assertiveness is being able to state what you want and need while maintaining respect for others. If someone is bossy they’ll:
- Try to control people and dictate to them
- Ignore other peoples’ views
- Come across as rude and pushy
- Micromanage people and situations
- Want power and authority
- Be aggressive in their interactions.
Did you recognise yourself here?
Assertiveness is an important skill and it can be a great attribute when it comes to inspiring trust and confidence. But if assertiveness crosses the line into bossiness, it can affect interpersonal relationships in the workplace, and if your goal is a harmonious team and a profitable and productive business, they matter.
I help office-based company Directors just like you to feel confident in their team and content with the way the team runs every day. My goal is to create a less frazzled life for you by offering you and your team mentoring and workshops tailored completely to your needs. A successful business is built on the foundations of a high-performing, harmonious team. Contact me to find out how I can help you create the business of your dreams, from the bottom up
Book a discovery call now.