Have you ever been told you need to be more assertive?
Or have you ever told somebody else they need to be more assertive?
Those who are told it, have likely heard it many times before. Usually from the same kind of people.
Those who tell it, have usually told it many times before. Usually to the same kind of people.
But telling someone they need to be more assertive is like telling someone who has never spoken anything but English, to start speaking Russian. It’s impossible, they have no understanding of how, there are no neural pathways established in their brain to access a different language in that moment.
They could certainly learn how to speak Russian, if they were taught, guided, supported and immersed themselves in the experience of it. With practice and stumbling and trying again, they could learn. But no-one would expect fluent Russian to be spoken without going through a learning process.
It’s the same with developing assertiveness.
However out of frustration, impatience and our need to hurry up, we expect those of us who are not naturally or comfortably assertive to begin speaking and behaving as someone who is, as soon as we suggest they should.
Those who suggest someone be more assertive, are usually very comfortable asserting themselves.
But, alone, such skills can be as detrimental to progress as not speaking up at all.
A General Manager of a large corporation recently shared how he’d realised he’d been telling one of his leaders to speak up and share his ideas with the senior leadership group. Knowing he had much to offer the organisation, this GM had been attempting to coax his leader into speaking up for months but nothing was changing.
His leader was a considered, measured, very intelligent expert in his field, but not naturally someone who spoke his ideas easily.
He went into meetings well-planned, listened to the discussion, was thoughtful about what others shared, and had ideas of his own, but was hesitant in raising them in the senior leadership group.
Taking the time to explore this area more closely through open discussion, they both came to understand that his leader was extremely comfortable sharing his ideas with his peers, but much less comfortable when in different environments.
Rather than continue telling his leader to be more assertive, this General Manager realised he needed to support his leader in becoming confident in environments that challenged him.
People who are told they need to be more assertive, would often love to be exactly that. They just haven’t been supported to develop the understanding and skills, and especially the confidence to try.
Those who suggest someone be more assertive, are usually very comfortable asserting themselves. They are not challenged by speaking up, leading a discussion, asking questions, sharing their ideas. They usually have no hesitation in getting things started, giving their opinion or holding people to account. These are highly valuable skills, especially in leading a team toward a vision, turning a business around or driving results. But, alone, these skills can be as detrimental to progress as not speaking up at all.
Being told “you need to be more assertive” can be extremely disempowering. It’s usually not the first time the person has heard it. But instead of taking time to coach and develop them, their leaders and managers have expected them to go find the learner’s manual and start speaking a foreign language as fluently and precisely as the natives.
If you are guilty of telling someone “you need to be more assertive” without showing them how, but expecting they’ll now speak up where they’ve been holding back, have difficult conversations they’ve been avoiding, or hold their people accountable where they’ve been over-compensating, it’s likely you’re growing more frustrated and disappointed in their performance.
But before you decide they can’t or won’t, or they’re not right for the job, consider there might be another conversation to have with them.
In my experience, people who are told they need to be more assertive, would love to be exactly that. They just haven’t been supported to develop the understanding and skills, and especially the confidence to try. Nor have they felt safe to practice, fail and try again.
Instead, you will find them providing a range of excuses to work around the conversations, responsibilities and deadlines they are unsure how to navigate.
Investing time, energy and thoughtfulness in helping people to develop this skillset, will support them to contribute even more of what you want from them.
Here’s a guide to help you get started…
1. Have a conversation with your team member about what assertiveness could look and sound like in specific situations.
2. Share with them why you believe it’s important for them and for the organisation that they develop these skills.
3. Ask them if they’re interested in developing these skills and if they are, why it’s important to them (seek their engagement before you ask for their commitment – refer my previous articles on this).
4. Explore the outcomes and results (both tangible and intangible) that could be possible if they developed these skills – if you’ve established deep engagement, this conversation could cross into their personal lives as well.
5. Set a 3 month development plan** that establishes agreed outcomes, timely milestones, specific opportunities to practice and receive feedback.
Offer them mentoring where they get to see you in action so they can experience examples of what assertiveness sounds and feels like in real situations. Debrief with them afterwards.
**Live feedback is a powerful tool to accelerate development (for example coaching them in front of their team), however this is only effective where you have established deep trust and rapport.
If you’re someone who wants to develop the ability to be more assertive, you may like to share this article with your leader or manager to help them help you grow.
Like learning a new language, patience and practice is key. Encouragement goes a long way to developing new skills in someone who is not naturally, or not being, assertive. Your support and guidance as their leader will speak volumes.
Your support and guidance as their leader will speak volumes.