“What would you say is the first key skill of a leader who hopes to balance over-assertive and under-assertive in order to lead from between their two extremes?”
That was the email question posed by a reader who had seen research by Ames and Flynn. That pair observed that, according to workers, their leaders managed better when they walked somewhere between the lines of too much and two little assertiveness.
This underscores the situational nature of management and leadership.
What About Over-Assertiveness, Under-Assertiveness and Leadership?
It’s easy to lapse into confusion based upon individual misunderstanding of terminology as well as one’s own “issues.” One person’s “assertiveness” is someone else’s “over-controlling.” I find that the absence of behavioral jargon can make it a lot easier and more natural to discuss topics whose buzzwords can build tension.
There is a recent history of attempting to carefully delineate behaviors using very specific language. This is, in part, the result of approaching human behavior in a more scientific way. Since behavior is, indeed, quite situational, this approach serves at least three purposes that I can see:
1. It provides a common language that, when used appropriately and above board, highlights nuance and helps one understand how specific actions impact one's effectiveness.
2. It provides specific definition of attributes that can lead to promotion, rewards, or dismissal. Which means that it also makes dismissal more explainable. (Likewise, terminology can become great fodder for one's attorney in the event of a dismissal).
3. It lends a "scientific" aura to common-sense training and development which, while fully understood as desirable by most reasonable managers, can't be bought and paid for without the "proof" that comes from a smathering of statistics and a few 6-syllable words that prove how deeply meaningful those statistics must really be.
The real issue: situational effectiveness.
If I don't know what to do or how to do it, then my boss has to be very directive and explanatory. If my task is something that I've done well a million times, then I want to know what the deadline is and I'll deliver it. Nothing more. If I need something along the way, I want a manager who I can go to for advice or re-direction.
In the first case, the manager manages me closely. In the second, the manager is my consultant. The reason that Ames and Flynn saw what they did is really rather simple: Since most of us as workers are at least somewhat competent and, hopefully, somewhat mature, any behavior that operates at either extreme will be seen as:
1. Unnecessarily overbearing and somewhat demeaning
2. Unreasonably absent of relationship and connection, and therefore not engaged. Or overly focused on 'relationship and happiness' to the exclusion of completing the task successfully.
Anything in between will be close enough to respectfully engage one's employees as well as create an atmosphere that invites questions and help, when needed.
So, Then: What is Effective Leadership?
The desire and ability to meet other people where they are and then spend the right amount of time helping them get where they need to go.
Sometimes it's a long walk together. Other times a brief conversation and a nudge in the right direction.
What does a person need to manage in such an effective way?
1. A high degree of self-awareness regarding one's innate tendencies toward one extreme or the other
2. The desire and ability to manage those tendencies in a way that serves the needs and performance of others
3. The humility to pause regularly and ask "How am I doing?"
4. The decency to listen to the answers.
5. The wisdom to make selfless changes as a result.