The Small Business Administration (SBA) published statistics in 2019 showing that in Australia, more than half of small businesses fail within the first five years. These alarming statistics beg the question: what are the main challenges that businesses are unable to overcome, leading to their swift demise? Furthermore, of the businesses that surpass the five-year benchmark, what’s the ‘secret’ for their long term sustainable success? And how do so-called ‘soft skills’ like assertiveness make a difference?
Many people assume that business growth is tied to skills, processes, tools and systems. However, a lack of growth may have a deeper root cause: how the owner and their team relate to themselves and each other as well as to their products, services and customers. Therefore, what we say to ourselves matters! For example, do you commonly find yourself thinking of any of the following?
- I want to be nice.
- I don’t want to upset anyone.
- I want them to like me.
- I need to be nice to get the sale.
- I should not ask directly.
- It is not safe to ask.
If so, you are not alone. However, what you may not be aware of is how significantly these kinds of statements shape your reality. If not addressed, the consequence is usually the opposite of what you are aiming to achieve by being ‘nice’: reduced revenue and stagnation rather than the growth you need. With revenue down and the business stagnating, what options are available to you? Apply sales training that teaches your team what to say and how to say it? Invest in a new CRM system and redesign the process? These ‘quick fixes’ are all well and good, but if the people aspects of the business are not addressed first, it won’t make any difference how much money you throw at systems and training.
Austrian medical doctor, psychotherapist and founder of the school of individual psychology, Alfred Adler, said, “Growth comes first from within”, and, “All problems are interpersonal problems.” What this means for you is that besides training, skills, processes and technology, the key to growth is to address the deeper qualities or Aspects of Being first, both your own and those of your people. Let’s consider one of the most critical Aspects of Being that should be addressed first within the scope of business growth versus stagnation and regression: assertiveness.
The perils of being aggressive (nasty) or submissive (nice) in business
Many people confuse assertiveness with aggression. They assume that by barking orders or being pushy in a sales conversation, they are being assertive. Genuine assertiveness facilitates effective conversations making it a way of being that leads to results. It is a quality that is neither being submissive (overly nice) nor aggressive (nasty). We are being assertive when we express ourselves firmly and unambiguously when communicating with others without being aggressive, pushy or nasty. Thinking back to the common thoughts salespeople and business owners have, like, “I want them to like me” and, “I need to be nice to get the sale”, you may now observe that these are examples of how we are when assertiveness is lacking. Ask yourself, “Am I being firm, straight, resolute and effective in my communication with my team and my customers? If not, why?”
Having led teams in my previous role as an account manager, I used to be quite aggressive towards the people on my team, only focusing on the outcome and result, although I didn’t perceive my behaviour as aggression or nastiness at the time. Thinking I was being assertive, I would order commands like, “This proposal HAS to be submitted tonight!” then demand, “WHY not?” if they would give me excuses. In hindsight, it would have been far more effective had I clearly and unambiguously explained the requirements of the task at hand concerning the needs of the company and the outcomes required.
On the other hand, when it came to engaging with clients, I was submissive. I would constantly wonder, “Will they like me?” and, “Will I get the sale?” I loved serving my clients. In fact, I still have a long-standing relationship with many of them. Yet I sometimes felt I couldn’t be fully authentic and straightforward with them. I was concerned that they wouldn't like me if I was too firm and direct with them, and I would lose the sale. So I behaved in a ‘nice’ manner to ensure I didn't rock the boat and disturb the sales process. I was equally submissive with some of my superiors. I constantly wondered if they saw me as being too pushy. So I behaved submissively at certain times, agreeing to everything they said.
I have found that both ends of this spectrum – being submissive (nice) or aggressive (nasty) – can lead to some level of successful outcome. But for me personally, when I take either of these approaches, I often felt concerned and anxious, which affected my peace of mind. I learned this when I was introduced to the Being Framework™ and discovered that we are most effective if we don’t shy away from making bold and courageous requests and building trust by being vulnerable about our intentions. I will discuss the impact of vulnerability in a separate article.
There are countless examples of effective outcomes where assertiveness was present. One example is Kristina Devlin, the owner of a Sydney-based yoga studio, who transformed her relationship with assertiveness after completing a Being Profile® and debrief session with a Being Profile Accredited Practitioner. During that process, she discovered that her unhealthy relationship with this way of being was the cause of her overly passive attempts to enrol new clients into a spring yoga challenge. Kristina had been trying to create a challenge for years, but it never seemed to happen. Before shifting her relationship with assertiveness, it did not occur to her that beyond sending an event flyer, she could assertively ask people to join her challenge by "being unreasonable" That is, moving through her discomfort and being assertive without coming across as pushy or aggressive. After three months of coaching, her business revenue grew by 30%.
When we tap into assertiveness and step into firmly asking for what we want, without being submissive (nice) or aggressive (nasty), anything is possible. The outcome for your business is growth, as opposed to stagnation, through increased sales, revenue and the fulfilment of KPIs. I encourage you to consider how assertive you are being in your business and, if you find yourself moving towards the other ends of the assertiveness spectrum, the reasons behind that. Imagine how beneficial it would be to shift into balance with this way of being. If you find you are constantly throwing money at ‘quick fixes’ like buying new systems and technology, remember the words of Alfred Adler: “Growth comes from within first”.