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July 1, 2007

Wimps, Bullies and Goldilocks

Effective leaders get assertiveness “just right,” says Professor Daniel Ames — here’s how.


When people describe effective leaders, some qualities come up again and again. Good leaders tend to have charisma, intelligence and conscientiousness in abundance. But according to research by Daniel Ames, the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics, that’s not true of assertiveness.

Working with then colleague Francis Flynn, now at Stanford University, Ames studied MBA students and their bosses and found that more assertiveness is good only to a point. Whether leaders he studied were seen as either too assertive or not assertive enough, colleagues judged them as less effective than those who got assertiveness just right.

“It’s a sort of Goldilocks effect,” says Ames, adding that the idea first came from feedback work colleagues were giving students in his leadership class. Some students were hearing, “You need to speak up and stand your ground,” while others got the opposite advice — to ease off. So it became obvious that when it comes to assertiveness, people can err in either direction, with only some consistently finding the happy medium between pushing to get their way and kowtowing to the wishes of others.

Less obvious is how that happens. Clearly, low assertiveness can break a leader because failing to stand up for your values and goals gets in the way of getting what you want. But equally damaging is pushing too hard to advance your own agenda. That approach backfires, as Ames’s research confirmed, by incurring high social costs. A boss who announces a major organizational decision without consulting the people it will affect, for example, will erode important relationships. And over time, such a domineering style will likely lead to high turnover and undermine the organization’s productivity, teamwork and innovation: hardly the stuff of effective leadership.

But while colleagues’ reviews often mention flaws in assertiveness, professionals who do get it just right rarely get credit for that skill. In this sense, Ames says, assertiveness is like salt in a sauce: when there’s too much or too little, it’s hard to notice anything else; the right amount goes unnoticed, but it lets the leader’s other “flavors” come through.

If that perfectly assertive leader sounds like you, you may be right — or you may be like most people, who don’t know when they’re being too tough or not tough enough. It turns out that while plenty of us come across as either bullies or pushovers, “virtually everybody puts themselves in the ‘appropriately assertive’ category,” Ames says. In fact, he believes if we knew we were getting assertiveness wrong, we’d adjust our actions accordingly.

That’s because we decide how assertive to act based on our assumptions and predictions about where our actions will lead, according to another of Ames’s studies. For example, if people act pushy and overbearing, it may be because they wrongly assume they can push hard before others are disgusted by them. “So it’s not that overassertive people are callous jerks and underassertive people have no ambitions about getting their way,” explains Ames. Instead, both types may be making inaccurate predictions that are causing them to behave in ineffective ways.

This insight highlights a path for change: if you can just get people to rethink their assumptions, they’ll adjust their behavior.

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