I received an email from a CEO who wanted some insight into coaching her sales manager who had rewarded a sales rep for “trying hard,” and not for sales results. She wanted to know how to discuss this with the manager in a way that helped him understand the bigger picture and the effect this might have on the rest of his team and the company.
She said, “His style is to be more of a friend, brother, and father figure than a boss. We would love to get him a book on this subject. He is really into reading business books. The other part of this is that he operates like he is running a company of 3, and struggles to see the big picture and how decisions impact longer-term strategy. A recent example is his request to reward a person with a bonus because they tried hard. Rather than pay the bonus when earned.”
Assertiveness Affects Our Leadership
I responded, “You are seeing his leadership style based on his personality traits. He is a low-assertive, highly-participative (wants and needs suggestions from others), detailed and compassionate leader who has a high belief in those he coaches and tends to accept what they say is true. He will project a positive, servant posture toward those in his employ.
His agreeableness and lack of assertiveness tend to cause him to reward others (give a trophy) when they play the game (try hard) and not after they win the game (merit). That reward system can confuse his players, including the one who received the reward, who have been taught to “earn” their rewards through results. He either did this out of a non-merit philosophy of coaching, out of his personality tendency, or a combination of the two.
It is okay to reward hard work with an acknowledgement of it, and with a specific praise of what they did right, but this should also be placed next to what can be done to improve to earn the reward.” Later, we talked back and forth about how to approach her manager with this in an appointment with him.
Curvilinear Relation Between Assertiveness and Leadership
Drs. Daniel R. Ames and Francis J. Flynn of Columbia Business School published their study, “What Breaks a Leader: The Curvilinear Relation Between Assertiveness and Leadership.”
But in the title, just what does curvilinear mean? It means at the extremely low and high ends of the assertiveness trait, a manager’s leadership style was often viewed as negative. Highly assertive types could be viewed as obnoxious, pushy, and unconcerned about relationships while low assertive leaders, like the leader above, were too nice, not direct enough, and had a hard time voicing the truth.
Knowing Our Assertiveness Tendencies
So, which assertiveness level are you? What would your people say? Are you more concerned about relationships than results, or do you care about results over relationships? Will you pay bonuses for trying hard because you are compassionate, or will you pay bonuses for concrete behaviors leading to results?
This is where emotional intelligence and maturity enter the picture on the job or at home. Do you know yourself? While the researchers argued for a moderate assertiveness in leadership, many are below or above the midpoint. As we gravitate away from the middle ground in assertiveness, costs to our leadership emerge.
Emotional intelligence starts with knowing oneself—with inspecting “what breaks us as leaders in all parts of life” not just sales. Then, looking closely at ourselves helps us understand how to adjust our behavior based on the situations and the people we are dealing with.
If you are low in assertiveness, you can learn to speak up for yourself and stand up for what is right. You can set and maintain the standards you believe in for those you employ. If you are high in assertiveness, you can grow to be able to take a back seat and listen—really listen to your team and loved ones. While we still have our tendencies, we are a lot better for those around us when we know ourselves and strive to work on the parts we can improve.