The two secrets to being assertive

Whether you’re helping someone improve their work performance, counselling an employee who smells of cigarettes or because of poor personal hygiene, or owning up to missing a deadline or making a mistake, you need to be assertive about it. It’s hard to imagine an effective leader-manager who isn’t assertive.

Yes, you need to use ‘I’ language so that your messages aren’t ‘pushy’. Yes, techniques like ‘broken record’ and ‘fogging’ are terrific when used well. But more, far more, than ‘I’ language or techniques, assertiveness is a mindset. And I think there are two secrets to an assertive mindset.

The first is the intention to make the other person feel good about themselves while still putting your own point of view across. When you do that, you make your point without making an enemy, and your message is far more likely to be heard and acted on.

The second is the intention to treat others with respect, which lies at the core of assertiveness. People bang on about their rights but we don’t often hear people talking about their responsibilities. Yes, we have a right to be treated with respect, to express our feelings and opinions and be listened to and taken seriously. Equally important, we have a responsibility to treat others and listen to their views with respect, to respect the wishes of others, to not force our ideas down someone else’s throat.

Understanding our responsibilities to others prevents us from crossing the line from assertiveness into aggression. Aggression may get us our own way in the short term, but every time we’re aggressive and pushy, rather than assertive, in order to get what we want, we do another degree of damage to the other person’s good will towards us and before you know it, your good working relationships have joined the dodo.

Are you an insecure manager?

Some new research shows that–surprise, surprise–managers who lack confidence don’t listen to their employees. Okay, it was a small study–41 managers and their 148 staff in a large oil company, but it rings true, doesn’t it.

The researchers confirmed their finding in a follow-up study that set up participants to be either confident or unconfident and then make a managerial decision. Again, managers low in confidence stuck to their own opinions and ignored the opinions of others while confident managers heeded the advice offered to them.

In the next part of the study, the researchers  found that just asking managers to positively affirm their positive qualities by writing them about the made them confident enough to listen to other’s opinions and ideas.

Since we know that teams that share ideas are more motivated and organisations with open communication cultures that listen to employees do better, it’s in everyone’s best interests for managers to feel confident in their abilities, and therefore willing to heed the advice and opinions of others. So the next time you’re feeling less than ‘able’, here’s what to do:

  1. Remind yourself that you got your job on merit and you’re pretty good at what you do; then think of a few things you’ve done well recently.
  2. Put aside the need to know everything–no manager does.
  3. Enlist your team and the aid of experts to help reach a tough decision or solve a thorny problem.

Do you look healthy enough to be a leader?

You may have noticed how US President Barack Obama jogs up and down the stairs to an airplane and you may remember former US President Bill Clinton’s $300 haircuts. And we can all probably remember Prime Ministers Tony Abbott jogging and John Howard walking (pretty fast) around Lake Burley Griffin, and Julia Gillard’s perfectly coiffed locks. Leaders need to look their best and look healthy, whether they’re political leaders or business leaders.

A Dutch study confirms this rather obvious hypothesis. First, the authors combined the faces of three young, clean shaven white males not wearing glasses or visible jewellery and computer-adjusted the combined face by independently manipulating health and intelligence, giving 32 variations of four basic facial characteristics:

  • high health, high intelligence
  • low health, high intelligence
  • high health, low intelligence
  • low health, low intelligence

(Because only the face was involved in the experiment, the main health cues involved complexion and the main intelligence cues involved face shape.)

Then they developed four business scenarios involving cooperation vs competition and exploratory change vs stable exploitation, each requiring a different type of leader.

Can you guess what they found? Looking smart is not as important as looking as healthy! An interesting sub-finding was that facial health positively affects perceived masculinity while facial intelligence negatively affects perceived masculinity. (Do you think that means that healthy-looking women look more masculine and smart-looking women look more feminine? I feel another study coming on!)

Anyway, if you’re a leader or aspiring leader, get out there in the fresh air and do some exercise. (Fresh air improves your complexion–but put on sun screen!). Looking smart is an optional extra!

Does this sound silly? Consider this: lots of other studies have found no correlation between leadership effectiveness and intelligence; in fact, very smart leaders don’t lead as well as well as leaders of average intelligence, possibly because they can’t relate to their team members as well.

This study didn’t examine leadership effectiveness but leadership selection: people had only the facial cues of intelligence and health to choose leaders for the scenarios they were presented. They didn’t actually interview the faces so they couldn’t tell whether they actually knew their stuff (after all, they weren’t even real people!) But, all things being equal in terms of knowing your stuff and interview skills, the healthy-looking candidate is going to win out. Remember that next time you go for a job interview–at least if you’re a young, white, clean shaven male. Women: look good, look smart, and look healthy.

Do you have what it takes to be a great leader?

Last week we looked at what–superficially–people look for in a leader: healthiness. But lest you think that appearance is all that matters, think again. US President Obama may be one of the youngest and healthiest presidents in US history, but he’s also rated by voters as the worst since World War II. It takes more than a healthy image to be a good leader, or at least to be seen to be a good leader (which may be different) in business and in politics.

A recent review of the literature on leadership found that:

  1. Leadership is important. (Ya think?)
  2. Leadership is about the performance of teams, groups and organisations.
  3. Good leadership promotes well-being and bad leadership degrades the quality of life for everyone associated with it.
  4. Personality predicts leadership in that who we are is how we lead.

Four factors that consistently correlate with good leadership are:

  • Competence: defined as the ability to influence others–not as easy as it sounds; in surveys of what people think of their immediate leader-manager, on average about half are seen as incompetent.
  • Decisiveness: making a decision and sticking with it. (But at what point does that become counterproductive stubbornness?)
  • Integrity: or trustworthiness, which earns respect and increases followers’ commitment, performance and satisfaction.
  • Vision: showing the way, motivating people and giving them a common purpose.

The ability to lead well isn’t just about how you look; more than that, it’s about what you know and who you are. That’s a relief.