Assertiveness is important in leadership, but the very common advice that you should “just be more assertive” is not helpful.
Thoughtful leaders often find it challenging to be assertive. Many are so used to thinking of others and making sure that everyone else’s needs are met, that they put their own needs on the back burner.
In this post I’ll take a look at assertiveness, and in particular I want to hone in on a common giveaway of the unassertive leader: the language they use.
We’ll look at some of this language, the impact it has, and some suggestions to see if you can start to be more assertive.
Why Is It Important to Be More Assertive In Leadership?
I define assertiveness as “Standing up for what you want in a respectful way”.
Instead of giving in or stepping back, you prioritise your needs and the needs of your team and pursue them.
But the key here is the part that says “in a respectful way”.
Navigating the Assertiveness Spectrum
We’ve all seen people who are aggressive rather than assertive. They try to steamroll other people, putting their own needs above all else, and fighting hard to fulfil them.
I see assertiveness as lying on a spectrum, as you can see in the graphic below.
Aggressive behaviour often involves direct words and threatening body language such as slamming fists on tables or finger-pointing.
Passive behaviour, on the other hand, has its own challenges. It involves being submissive, staying quiet, not taking action and letting other people have their way.
Obviously, both of these approaches have their downsides, so the sweet spot is in the middle, in the assertive zone.
To be more assertive, we need to move closer to the middle.
In this post, I’m going to concentrate on moving from passive to assertive, because I believe this is where most thoughtful leaders experience the challenge.
When I’m working with coaching clients, sometimes we’ll talk about moving a few points up the assertiveness spectrum.
If you imagine the spectrum as stretching from zero to ten, we’re aiming to be somewhere in the middle – let’s say a five to seven.
Assertiveness Matters, Because People Are Out to Get You
We need to be more assertive because otherwise we may be taken advantage of, fail to achieve our objectives or have our needs met.
Leaders are often judged on results. To get results, we need to stand up for what we need to get those results.
It’s also common to be working in an organisation with many people, all with different priorities. We like to believe that everyone is in it for the same reason, but the reality is that people want to satisfy their own needs and achieve their own career goals.
That’s not to say that everyone is out to get you in a malicious way.
But if you’re known as the person who helps everyone out and “never says no”, then you’re likely to be lumped with a lot of extra work while everyone else gets to focus on what they really want.
Being a passive leader sets a precedent that you will consistently back down. Being an assertive leader sets the precedent that people may need to negotiate with you to get what they want, rather than expect it to be handed to them on a silver platter.
You’ll also need to be more assertive to resist the pressure and dominance of the alpha career-ladder climbers who are happy to fight their way to the top.
We need more thoughtful leaders at the top. Assertiveness will help you get there, stay there, and do a great job at the same time!
Diminishing or Softening Language: A Sign of a Lack of Assertiveness
One symptom I see for a potential lack of assertiveness is what I call diminishing or softening language.
By diminishing, I mean that a person lacking assertiveness may use language that diminishes their status compared to the other person they are communicating with.
Softening language is often used to reduce the perceived threat of an idea or statement.
Both of these types of language can be useful in the right circumstance.
The trouble occurs when this type of language becomes a habit, even when speaking about things that are important to you.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Example 1: Adding the Word “Just”
Sometimes people will say (or write in an email) things like:
“I’m just checking…” or “I’d just like to ask…” or “Just wondering…”
This might seem like a harmless little word, but I find it can make an impact.
When we add “just”, we are qualifying our statement to reduce its significance. When we say “just” we are making it seem like a small or trivial request.
But actually, it might be important to us. We add “just” to make the other person feel better about our little request. But this might mean they misinterpret how important it is to us.
And therefore, they may not regard it as something they need to worry about or prioritise.
I find myself doing this from time to time in emails. When I notice, I remove it and restructure the sentence, so I’m not reducing the perceived importance of my request.
Example 2: “I’m Thinking About Doing…”
Are you really just “thinking about” doing something?
Or have you already decided it is something you want to do, but are concerned that it might annoy the other person?
Sometimes we do this to try to soften the impact of our statement, when really we know what we’d like to do already.
To be more assertive in this case, could you simply say “I’d like to do…<something>… what do you think?”
Being assertive doesn’t mean you never ask for input, but don’t pretend you don’t have your own opinion on the topic.
Learn More: 7 Things Leaders Should Stop Saying.
Example 3: “Maybe…”
Maybe is a big softening word.
When we say we “will do this… maybe” or “maybe try this…” or “maybe that would be a good idea”, we’re being tentative.
Instead, could you simply leave the “maybe” out?
“I think it would be a good idea to try this approach.”
It’s OK to own your ideas and your opinions.
Example 4: Using More Words Than Are Required
You may catch yourself using words like:
“Or something like that”, or
“Or that sort of thing” or
Sometimes we do this because we feel uncomfortable putting our point across. So we soften it, with qualifying language which reduces the strength of our message.
To reduce this possibility, try using as few words as possible to convey your message.
Example 5: Asking For Permission
Sometimes we do need to ask for permission, but surely not all the time.
“Would it be OK if…”
Once again, asking for permission makes the other person feel like they can take control of your direction. That they can potentially stop what you’re doing, or that they deserve to have a say in it.
You could instead try:
“I’d like to do <something>. What do you think?” or
“I’m planning to do <something>. It’d be great to get your feedback”.
How to Be More Assertive, In Small Steps
These phrasing examples seem small, but they can make a big difference to how you are perceived.
If others believe they deserve to be asked for permission, that’s how they’ll work with you.
If people believe that you don’t really feel strongly about your idea, that’s how they’ll treat the idea.
Making a change won’t happen overnight, because this tendency may have developed over a long time. It will take some time to unwind it.
Here are some ideas to get you started.
1. Monitor Your Language
To begin, start to pay attention to the words you use in personal conversation and via electronic methods.
Email is a good starting point because you can look at your sent emails, while it can be hard to monitor your language when you’re actually in the moment. Recordings of online meetings could also be a good source of information.
In the beginning, just take note of the language. See what you say, and when you say it. Write down some examples. Get some feedback from a trusted colleague – ask them if they can take note of your language too.
Then, over time, you can look to start tweaking your phrasing to reduce the softening speak.
2. Practice the New Language
The new language might feel difficult to start with, especially if you’ve built up a habit.
If you know you have an important meeting or conversation you need to have, prepare what you want to say, being careful to leave out the diminishing words.
Say it out loud, in front of a mirror.
If you’re going for a job interview where you want to earn at least $120k, don’t say “around $120k”.
Either say “$120k plus” or better yet, why not say “at least $130k“!
Rehearse in front of the mirror and it will become easier to say in the moment, because you’ve done it already.
3. Set Some Targets
If you know you have a compulsive habit of adding “maybe” to your sentences, set yourself a target.
This week, I’m going to leave out the “maybe” three times.
I’m going to send emails without “just” five times.
Start small. Unravel an old habit, and start a new one.
Assertiveness Shows Up In Your Actions, But Also Your Feelings
Tweaking your assertive language can be beneficial to improve your reputation in the workplace.
But it also plays a part in how you feel about yourself.
If you feel compelled to ask for permission all the time, it might be because you consider yourself to be beneath the people around you.
Start to change your language, and you start to change the perceptions of others. Then you start to change the perception you have of yourself.
Do you notice any other phrases that may indicate a lack of assertiveness? What tips do you have to be more assertive? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments!