In a recent workshop I was facilitating on emotional intelligence, several of the participants identified assertiveness as the element they wanted to develop most. Assertiveness is an interpersonal skill in which you productively communicate your beliefs, thoughts, and feelings in a non-offensive way, and get your point across in a clear and confident manner. Assertiveness can be underused and overused. The underuse of assertiveness is a more passive approach, and the overuse is an aggressive approach.
Low assertiveness: a more passive approach; keeping opinions and thoughts to yourself, rather than sharing them openly with your team. You may hold back ideas for fear of being criticized or getting pushback. The tendency to not take action and avoid tough conversations to preserve harmony.
High assertiveness: you articulate thoughts and ideas clearly and confidently, and are firm and direct when making decisions. You guide your team toward goals and help them gain the resources they need to be successful, and remove obstacles when necessary. You typically resolve conflict timely and in a productive way.
Overuse of assertiveness: an aggressive approach that can result in shutting team members down, which often discourages healthy debate and conflict. The tendency to not listen, and not consider the ideas of others, which can create a culture of intimidation, fear, and compliance.
Assertiveness is an important leadership skill, benefiting both you and your team. Productively speaking your mind and sharing your ideas builds confidence, ensures you get the resources you need to be successful, and reduces stress since you are handling challenges in a timely and constructive way. Assertiveness also benefits your team by building trust in you as their manager, and ensuring your team gets the resources they need to succeed. Your team will feel supported when you make timely decisions, deal with issues promptly, and advocate for them. In addition, when you promptly share feedback and actively coach and develop your employees, you pave the way for them to reach their goals and achieve success.
Like any skill, assertiveness can be strengthened and developed. You don’t increase assertiveness overnight, so start with small actions that you can build on over time.
Here are five strategies for developing assertiveness:
Practice in your personal life. A great way to build assertiveness is to practice in low-risk situations that you encounter in your personal life. Often times, people avoid speaking up because they don’t want to appear difficult or challenging. If you are at a restaurant and there is something wrong with your meal, ask the server to send it back. If a contractor is late getting you a quote, follow up and ask when you can expect to receive it. Ask for an upgrade when you check into a hotel (I have gotten several upgrades doing this—the worst they can say is no). There are many opportunities in everyday moments to speak up and be more assertive.
Don’t answer right away. Sometimes leaders struggle with saying yes to too much. One recent workshop participant asked how she can start saying no without coming across as disrespectful. Many times, we say yes in the moment and regret it later. One thing to try is, when possible, don’t commit right away. You could say something like, “let me think about that and get back to you”. This gives you time to reflect and assess how you really want to respond so you don’t feel pressured in the moment. You can follow up later and say “I’ve reviewed my schedule, and I won’t be able to get that to you by tomorrow. Would Friday work for you?” This approach also allows you to frame your answer in a positive, respectful way. I use this a lot in my personal life. I used to agree to playdates, get-togethers, or kids’ parties when I was put on the spot and then regretted it later. Now I simply say, “Let me check our schedule and let you know.” This gives me the time to really reflect and determine what I want to agree to.
Speak up in meetings. One of the best ways to build your assertiveness skills and show up as a confident leader is to begin sharing your ideas and thoughts in meetings. This sounds easy, and if you struggle to speak up, start by making an intention to speak up once in each meeting. This isn’t about talking just to talk. It’s about showing your value, and not holding back your ideas or reservations for the benefit of the team and the overall credit union. If you don’t typically speak up in meetings, you risk the chance of your colleagues and senior leaders thinking that you are not committed to the project. Speak concisely and make eye contact, which builds respect. Make it a goal to speak up at least once in each meeting, which will build your confidence so that it becomes more natural.
Practice taking action. An important element of assertiveness is taking action and not waiting or avoiding challenges. Avoiding a tough conversation with an employee, being overly accommodating to others’ needs at the expense of your own needs and the needs of the team, or putting off making tough decisions will impact your leadership in a negative way. Make an intention to act on important decisions and conversations faster so they don’t build up into bigger issues. Avoiding these interactions will cause more mental stress as you ruminate over how to approach it. Imperfect action is usually better than no action. Make an intention to take action faster.
Prepare and practice. If you have a challenging conversation coming up, practice how you will approach it with a trusted colleague or supportive manager. Prepare how you will start the conversation, and ask your colleague for feedback. This can be a great approach to build your confidence and practice how to handle another person’s potential response.
As a leader, assertiveness not only builds respect from your colleagues, manager, and employees, but shows them that you care enough to advocate for yourself and others. Assertiveness also ensures that your team avoids artificial harmony—the tendency to not surface issues to preserve harmony—which can be destructive to teams and cultures. By increasing assertiveness, you elevate your leadership and your team.