30 March 2012:
Assertiveness gets a bad rap when people equate it with being pushy and annoying. But that shouldn't stop you from learning to apply it productively (that is — in service to your strengths). More harm is done when people aren't assertive enough than by being too assertive. At least you know what pushy people think, but those who don't assert themselves can be keeping vital ideas hidden and useless when they don't speak up or speak too softly. So I'd assert that when you are able to balance this critical skill with your other leadership abilities, you greatly amplify your power and impact.
Here are some specific ways in which assertiveness complements a wide range of the critical leadership skills you may already have:
- Creating a culture of innovation: A couple of years ago I conducted a study to determine the characteristics of the most innovative leaders in one of the largest companies in the world. One of their most powerful traits, their peers and direct reports told me, was their ability to push back on the hierarchy. These leaders were by no means rebels; rather, they were perceived to be fearless. Coupling assertiveness with their ability to foster innovation enabled them to take on difficult issues — to fight for resources for new projects or openly disagree with more senior managers about policy changes that could have severe unintended consequences. Being challenged required people to think more deeply to justify a course of action, which frequently produced much better ideas.
- Being customer focused: We typically think of service or business development professionals as being good at, and focused on, building relationships. But the most successful sales professionals, as Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson point out in their blog and their book, The Challenger Sale, are not the ones who build relationships. They're the ones who push back, challenging their clients to see problems they hadn't anticipated. Essentially, Dixon and Adamson's research finds, assertiveness creates more value for clients than conciliatory relationship building does.
- Fostering teamwork and collaboration: It might seem like assertiveness has little to do with the skills you need to be a team player. But teams thrive when their members are able to express their not-always-popular points of view. Excellent team players (who generally are already inclusive and able to defer to others) would improve considerably by learning when to assert such views. And team leaders who are assertive in creating a safe environment for less-popular opinions will make their teams all the stronger by increasing all team members' ability to participate fully.