Assertiveness key to manager success

It’s about finding the middle ground between hands-off, hands-on approach

Managers differ based on personality, attitude and ability but a common skill that creates solid-performing leaders is assertiveness. Not to be confused with aggressiveness, assertiveness is the ability, willingness and confidence to speak up and manage situations — even the difficult ones.

Employees appreciate assertiveness because it means communication is clear, requests are concise and there is an atmosphere of mutual respect. Managers who are assertive are more engaged, involved and effective, meaning they are more likely to be successful leaders.

But assertiveness is a challenge when comfort levels and confidence are low and guilt is prevalent. When a manager feels he shouldn’t ask for something or is uncomfortable refusing a request, he will struggle in achieving assertiveness. He will come across as passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive.

Essential for effective, efficient and respected managers, assertiveness can be difficult to achieve. It has three key components — respect for other people, clear communication and the ability to ask or make requests of others. Below are six strategies to bring out these components.

Take on confrontation and conflict resolution

Conflict is uncomfortable and most people try to avoid it at all costs. This causes problems because a manager’s primary responsibility is to manage others, especially through difficult situations.

Non-assertive managers use passive-aggressive strategies, avoid situations or use pat answers. These create greater problems such as constant tensions, anger flair-ups and plunging morale.

Assertiveness is about approaching conflict head-on and making it about the problem rather than the people. Assertive managers don’t rush into a fix but take time to devise a plan with problem definition, options and actionable steps to achieve resolution. These managers intervene early and follow up to confirm resolution and reduce future conflicts.

Take responsibility and accountability

There is nothing worse than an employee asking her manager a question and receiving an obscure answer. Even worse, she may be given a response that is also a question — and not an insightful one. Passive managers often provide answers and direction by speaking in circles, using vague words and avoiding direct instruction. They commonly use words such as “probably,” “generally,” “usually” or the dreaded “do whatever you think is best” — without meaning it.

Employees want leaders who provide direction, clarity and take responsibility for successes as well as failures. Definite word choices and messaging make for clear, succinct and direct managers who are accountable for their words.

When answers are not known, assertive managers state: “I don’t know but I will get back to you.”

They find details, seek out knowledgeable people, report back quickly and ask if further help is needed.

Match body language to words, intentions

Confusion results when managers say one thing but their body language says another. Consider a manager discussing an employee’s errors or missed deadlines. He may say, ‘It’s OK, as long as it doesn’t happen again,’ but if his arms are folded across his chest, it may indicate the contrary and employees won’t know whether to believe him.

Managers need to be consistent with their words and actions so requests are clear and concise. If the following was said with the manager pointing to the calendar, it would improve the outcome:

“The report was late and accounting cannot get the financials paid on time. I need that report completed and submitted two days before month-end so problems are not passed along. If there is a risk of being late, please advise me by noon the day before month-end.”

Use controlled, intentional gestures

While some people talk with their hands, flail their arms or make faces during conversation, managers need to keep their gestures in check to ensure emotions and intentions are not misread.

Controlled gestures help managers illustrate assertiveness. Counting on fingers, pointing to visuals or keeping pace with a desired motion are effective in describing options and steps to people. Arm signals can invite employees into a manager’s office, while hands together (without fingers steepled) will show full attention is being given.

Match method of speech to words used

Confusion creeps in when spoken words do not match how they are spoken. Research shows people have a tendency to focus more on how something is said than what words are used.

When there is a hint of uncertainty, change in pitch or odd intonation, employees pick up on this and may not take a manager as seriously. Furthermore, staff may resist asking her for instruction or information if they question whether her responses are accurate.

Assertiveness in tone is best described as “confident speak.” Managers should use tones that reflect “I know what I say to be true and I stand behind every word.” They need to avoid words such as “maybe,” “likely,” “should” and “hopefully” because they contradict confidence. Inflection with tone is effective in making a strong point, giving concrete answers and providing direction that is respected.

Ensure there is congruence with authenticity, actions

Managers promoted because of seniority or job expertise may be challenged to think and act like managers and leaders. They may not have the assertiveness they need and it may be a struggle for them to match their thoughts with their behaviours.

These individuals will act the way they think a manager should act or reference managers from their past and assess what worked and what did not.

Assertive managers do well because they are positioned in the middle ground of the continuum. They illustrate how to lead and how to support as well.

When managers believe in themselves, in what they are doing and in how they are accomplishing their leadership role, their actions match their feelings of confidence, effectiveness and success.

And employees appreciate the clarity, consistency and predictability.

Pam Paquet is a workforce productivity specialist with expertise in better communication, co-operation and collaboration for improved productivity. She can be reached at Pam Paquet & Associates Corporate Consulting in Port Coquitlam, B.C., at (604) 468-9094, [email protected] or, for more information, visit

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