People talking business

Be Assertive, But Not Too Much

Quick: what’s the #1 quality of a good leader?

If you’re like most people, you probably think of intelligence, charisma, and self-discipline. In a study by Daniel Ames, a Columbia Business School professor, and Francis Flynn, a professor at Stanford Business School, these were the strengths mentioned most frequently by employees asked to describe their colleagues’ leadership abilities.

But the most commonly reported weakness was assertiveness—either too much or too little.

“Assertiveness dominated reports of leadership weaknesses, though it wasn’t nearly as common in colleagues’ comments about strengths,” Ames told the American Psychological Association. “When leaders get assertiveness wrong, it’s glaring and obvious, but when they get it right, it seems to disappear. We say it’s like salt in a sauce: when there’s too much or too little, it’s hard to notice anything else, but when it’s just right, you notice the other flavors. No one compliments a sauce for being perfectly salted, and it’s just as unusual for a leader’s perfect touch with assertiveness to attract much notice.”

Moderate assertiveness is the way to go, said Ames, but this doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate. Instead, leaders who get assertiveness right adjust their behavior to the requirements of a given situation.

Where do you think you fall on the passivity-assertiveness-aggression spectrum?

According to the study, I’m reasonably assertive but still have room to work on it. How about you?

(Thanks to my friend Adam Grant for alerting me to this study. Besides being a total mensch, Adam is the Wharton professor responsible for groundbreaking research on the strengths of introverted leaders—he and his colleagues have shown for the first time when and why introverted leaders outperform extroverted ones.)

*The above post previously appeared on Susan Cain’s former blog, The Power of Introverts.

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