What new insights does your research on assertiveness bring to the literature on leadership?
There’s been a lot of research and writing on the topic of what makes great leaders great, and it typically revolves around things like charisma, intelligence, drive, motivation and conscientiousness. I think all those things are part of what makes a good leader good. But in our work with students and executives, when we ask work colleagues to comment on “What’s holding this person back from being a great leader?” we don’t see the absence of intelligence, the absence of drive, the absence of charisma. What comes up more often than anything else is assertiveness. It comes up almost equally in both directions. Some managers are seen as too assertive, too overbearing, too competitive. Others are seen as not assertive enough: they get pushed around easily; they’re not able to stand their ground or get their way. This comes up again and again in our research, and our MBA students and the executives that we work with in the Executive Education programs find it surprising and fascinating.
In our core course on leadership, we coach students through feedback from work colleagues and school colleagues and try to focus on their leadership and management behaviors. The major assignment in the course is a self-assessment and development plan that’s based on this feedback. A great number of these plans have to do in some way with assertiveness: increasing it, decreasing it, refining it. We saw it everywhere in the feedback, and then we saw that our students were really interested in this and that they saw it as so important that they wanted to address it. The issues that our students were struggling with pointed us toward a gap in the research literature that we were then able to fill, in part as a result of our own classroom experience.
Whereas most of the prior work on this topic has studied what makes a leader, we are flipping this around and studying what breaks a leader. So we decided to look at some of the data that we have on coworker and manager comments about leadership weaknesses. What we see coming up again and again are topics related to assertiveness and conflict. I think the reason assertiveness comes up is because conflict is such an essential part of what managers and leaders deal with. Sometimes it’s avoiding conflicts that really beg to be embraced and engaged in. Other times it’s pushing too hard and straining relationships through conflict.
One thing we’ve found interesting is that when leaders get assertiveness right, they don’t necessarily get credit for it. Very few people compliment a leader for being just perfectly assertive enough. But when they get it wrong in either direction, it’s visible to everyone around: the leader who’s a real wimp and can’t push people their way and can’t pull people on board to their agenda, or the leader who pushes everyone around and frays nerves and strains relationships. Those are very vivid kinds of behaviors, and people around them notice.
Is assertiveness situational, or do people tend to be consistent across domains?
There’s definitely variance across situations. Someone who’s a real mouse to their immediate supervisor might turn around and be an absolute terror to the people who work for him or her. In the context of a negotiation somebody acts a certain way because they think that’s the script, but in the context of a motivational speech they’re entirely different. But if we ask four or five work raters to judge a manager’s assertiveness, we find a pretty high level of convergence among those observers. What we don’t often see, though, is a high level of convergence between managers’ perceptions of themselves and what their raters have to say. In other words, most people don’t really know if they’re seen by people around them as overassertive or underassertive. And so not only is getting assertiveness right one of the great challenges for leaders, but it’s often a challenge that they don’t even recognize, because they don’t realize that many of the people around them see them as miscalibrated.
Assertiveness has different consequences in different domains. In terms of instrumental outcomes — did I get my way, did I win or, in a negotiation, did I get the settlement terms that I wanted? — assertiveness is positively associated with a lot of those kinds of things. It’s negatively associated with relationships: does your partner like you, do they trust you, do they ever want to see you again? The more you go up in terms of assertiveness, the more you get your way but the less you get along, and vice versa. Most leaders most of the time in most jobs and industries need a balance. They need to both get along and get their way. And that’s why we see that middle levels of assertiveness tend to be associated with more effective leadership. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all leaders should be moderately assertive all the time.
Can you talk briefly about the research methodology that you used?
The central work that I’ve done on this with Frank Flynn, my colleague in the Management Division, revolves around coworker evaluations of our MBA students. Former coworkers commented on the students’ strengths and weaknesses and also rated their leadership potential. We find what is essentially an inverted U between the ratings of a person’s assertiveness and the ratings of their leadership: up to a certain point it’s positively associated, and then it goes back down.
We’ve done text analysis of the actual comments, where we counted the frequency of certain words like “assertive,” “intelligent” and “driven” in strength comments and weakness comments. We had a team of research assistants over a series of months looking at thousands of these ratings and coding them. That was the initial step to confirm that even though the prior research on leadership has largely ignored assertiveness, it’s a real, major issue and arguably one of the most prevalent, if not the most prevalent, issue for people in terms of how they’re seen by their work colleagues.
We’ve put students into situations where they’ve been in conflict with each other and had to negotiate. We know which ones are really assertive and which ones are not very assertive at all, and we look at what happens. The ones who are really assertive, after the exercise is over, tend to have really good deal terms, but their partners don’t like them. One of the things I’ve been doing lately is looking at people’s expectations of how their partners will react, and we find very big differences between people who are high in assertiveness and people who are low.
Given that assertiveness is partly a personality issue — and therefore difficult to change — what can people do to change their assertiveness style?
I like to think of it more specifically as assertive behavior, and people can change their behavior. We see a lot of our students doing this, and a lot of them end up becoming very eager and committed to doing it. Can you rewrite your personality? There’s a lot of debate in the academic literature about whether that’s possible or not. But we can set that debate aside and focus on assertive behavior. You have a choice about how to start a conflict. You can pound your fists on the table and shout and berate your partner and act like an alpha male, or you can open up and cultivate rapport and work hard to listen and put your partner at ease. Personality has a role in that, but that’s a behavioral choice. Can people become more aware of their behavioral repertoire and make different choices? Absolutely. We see it all the time with our students. We’re not asking people to rewrite their personalities, but we are encouraging them to rethink what behaviors are most appropriate in different situations. And we find with the right awareness and the right kind of coaching they can absolutely do it.
Getting candid feedback is the first step. Often this means some kind of multirater or 360-degree evaluation system, because the people around us won’t tell us to our faces that they think we’re a jerk or they think we’re a wimp. This may be especially true for people who are over-assertive. We found that while most people don’t really know how they’re seen by others in terms of their assertiveness, people who are low on assertiveness tend to be slightly more aware. They know the times that they’ve been pushed around. It might be a very frustrating but common occurrence for them. People who are highly assertive may not always see the consequences of their behavior, often because they see that they get their way. But what they don’t see is that their partner walks out of the room frustrated, angry, disappointed, feeling abused.
One additional reason for this is that highly assertive people may surround themselves with a handful of colleagues who are kind of like them. And so they’re around people whose behavior looks a lot like theirs, and they believe that this is the way that things should get done. Once they leave that environment and engage other people, they don’t realize the consequences of their behavior and how it’s affecting other people’s perceptions of them. I don’t think anyone has as their goal that they want to alienate and frustrate other people. Most people don’t want to be seen as a jerk, but they don’t realize that their behavior is causing other people to have these perceptions of them. If they can see what their behavior is doing to others, then they understand this. And then it becomes natural for them to try to recalibrate their behavior.
The second step is to think about the costs and benefits of your style. If you’re a very assertive person, think about what that allows you to do, and think about how that limits you. If you’re not very assertive at all, again, think about the costs and benefits. The immediate imperative is not that you must change or that everyone should seek some middle level of assertiveness. People should first be more aware of how their assertiveness is seen by those around them and think about what that affords them and what that prevents them from doing.
One response is not to change one’s personality but to think about reaching out to others who can complement your own style. A real wimp might team up with a hard-charging agent or representative when heading into a negotiation with a tough adversary. If your problem is that you’re overly aggressive or overly competitive, if you need to be in a situation that calls for tenderness or empathy, bring in somebody who has some of those skills to work with you on cultivating trust in a difficult situation. So there are ways to work around this without having to rewrite yourself. But we find that a lot of the managers and students we work with, when they hear this feedback, they want to change. They don’t want to change into a different person, but they want to be strategic about the repertoire of behaviors that they can bring to bear in a conflict or in interpersonal exchanges.
What specific things should people pay attention to when they are trying to recalibrate their assertiveness style?
We encourage some of our students to focus on their listening behaviors. For other students we draw their attention to their aspiration point in a negotiation, encouraging them to set higher goals for themselves. But we’ve found that it’s not just about behaviors but also about expectations. People who are high on assertiveness expect that if they eased up, they’d lose a lot of their gains. What they don’t realize is they would maybe lose a little bit of ground but gain a tremendous amount of rapport, respect and trust that can create gains for them in other ways.
People who are low on assertiveness often exaggerate the perception that if they push back, their partner won’t like them. What they don’t realize is that if they push back, their partner will actually regard them as entirely reasonable and intelligent, and it doesn’t destroy the relationship. One of the things that we’ve found very effective is encouraging people to test these assumptions and see what happens. A lot of our students find that once they’re focused on testing those expectations, their behaviors fall in line and start to bring them the results that they want.
Daniel Ames is assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School.
Read the Research
"What Breaks a Leader: The Curvilinear Relation Between Assertiveness and Leadership"