Unlock the meaning of assertiveness and become a powerful and effective leader

Assertiveness is a quality most of us want to have, but it’s also commonly misunderstood. Many people think that if they demonstrate assertive communication, they are being assertive. In this article, ontological leadership coach Jeanette Mundy explains that assertiveness as a way of Being differs from acting assertively. She also highlights the cost to a business when the leader has an unhealthy relationship with assertiveness and the advantages of fostering a culture of assertiveness throughout an organisation.

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Nov 08, 2022

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6 mins read

Have you ever found yourself trying to keep the peace within your team, thinking you were communicating assertively, only to end up exploding in anger and frustration? This can be the result of an unhealthy relationship with assertiveness. Assertiveness is crucial for leaders and a requirement for producing powerful and effective outcomes. But very few understand the true meaning of assertiveness, making them unaware that a lack of it is the problem, even when there are clear signs to the contrary.  

If you are a current or aspiring business leader or an entrepreneur who needs to be more assertive to fulfil your intentions and are keen to unleash your full leadership potential, this article is for you. I will explain the meaning of assertiveness from an ontological perspective, why assertiveness is crucial to your development as a leader and why it is a way of Being we all have access to. I’ll also address what gets in the way of assertiveness, what not being assertive is costing you and how you can be assertive (as opposed to just acting assertively) and become aware of the times when you’re not.

Where does our confusion about assertiveness stem from?

Many people think assertiveness is being pushy or demanding. As a way of Being, it's widely misunderstood. So, where did that confusion come from? For many of us, it stems from childhood. Cast your mind back to when you were growing up. Were you frequently scolded for speaking out of turn or being ‘bossy’ or ‘mean’? We can all agree that no one likes it when children are mean. But often, they’re simply attempting to get a message across without the skills and emotional maturity to articulate it clearly. Furthermore, many children are told by adults, such as their parents and teachers, to be quiet and listen rather than speak up. Is it any wonder they grow up thinking assertiveness is a negative trait! I invite you to reflect on the relationship you developed with assertiveness as a child. How were you taught to communicate? Were you taught to speak up for yourself or told you were being naughty for doing so?

What is assertiveness?

Ashkan Tashvir, founder of the Being Framework and author of BEING, writes: “assertiveness is when you express yourself effectively and stand up for your point of view while also being respectful of others. It is the willingness to express your thoughts and feelings and communicate your needs and expectations firmly and directly while being considerate of others and aware of any subsequent consequences of being assertive. Assertiveness is being resolute, straight, firm and effective.

An unhealthy relationship with assertiveness is apparent in those who typically fail to stand up for their point of view and often feel disempowered or let down as a result. People who struggle to be assertive might swing either side of the pendulum from being submissive to being aggressive. If you are not accustomed to being assertive or you’re unclear about the true meaning of assertiveness, then perhaps you’re also noticing some breakdowns in your relationships across different areas of your life. 

Awareness is the launching point for starting assertive conversations and powerfully owning your point of view, making it less likely for you to be derailed by your emotions and swing from submission to aggression.

Why is assertiveness crucial to your development as a leader?

Assertive leaders remain focused on their vision and are powerful in making dispassionate requests and holding people accountable for their commitments. They are clear on what they want from people and not distracted by the judgements and opinions of others. Because they powerfully command respect and give respect in return, people are more likely to listen to them, feel valued and effectively contribute to the team. 

What gets in the way of assertiveness? 

Because assertiveness is so widely misunderstood, many people are intolerant of assertive people. We develop our intolerance through our own narrative lens and perceptions, typically derived from our cultural heritage, the community in which we were raised and our upbringing.

Growing up, I was never taught that the word assertiveness represented communicating in a firm, direct manner so that I could stand up for my point of view while also being respectful of others. If there was a class on ‘assertiveness training’, I must have missed it! Ironically, the common misconceptions surrounding assertive communication and intolerance of assertive people through misunderstanding get in the way of people being assertive. 

What is a lack of assertive communication costing you? 

Remaining silent because you don’t want to ‘rock the boat’, dominating and resorting to threats or snapping to defend yourself are all signs of an unhealthy relationship with assertiveness, which gets in the way of effective operations. This is an issue I see with many business owners I coach. 

Some years ago, when I was running my own business and responsible for operations, one of my employees was being aggressive to clients. Knowing his behaviour was a risk to the business, I needed to be assertive and confront him about it in a one-on-one conversation. As challenging as it was, I had to be explicit about what was unacceptable behaviour and why. I remained focused on the organisation’s vision and mission, making it possible to make a dispassionate decision to deliver a termination warning. When his unacceptable behaviour continued, I chose to assertively follow through on my warning and terminate his employment.

Had I been ignorant or lacking in assertiveness, I would have made a poor business decision that would likely have led to poor team morale, silencing of other employees, disruption to team cohesion and people walking on eggshells. As a result of the aggressive employee’s termination, other team members began to open up more at work, lifting team cohesiveness, workplace morale and performance. Had I not been assertive, it would have come at a significant cost to the business. 

Be assertive and be aware when you’re not

Assertive leaders know what they want to achieve. They are clear on their vision, intentions and goals. They are not derailed by their desire to please and be agreeable. Instead, they are straight, firm and frank. They command and give respect. And they have tolerance towards others who are assertive and communicate assertively too. In fact, they actively encourage assertiveness in others, knowing that when others are empowered to speak their mind, their contribution to the business is much greater. 

In my book, Power in Your Pocket, I address the ‘power of the pause’, which asserts that in a pause, we can create space between what’s been said and how we choose to respond. Pausing also enables us to be present to assertiveness as a way of Being and aware when it is lacking. An assertive leader has the potential to become more present through pausing to bring greater awareness to their interactions. The power of the pause gives them time to decide how they will respond. It lets them choose powerfully to respond in a straight, firm manner, taking care of what matters rather than reacting on impulse with aggression or submission.

Conclusion

To set yourself up as a leader of influence, it’s important that you’re not only assertive yourself but that creating a culture of assertiveness is also your intention. Give others the permission to speak up and say what’s on their minds without resorting to threats and ridicule. That way, they will be more likely to come to you when they’ve made mistakes and be responsible and accountable for their actions and deliverables. Your assertiveness will foster a culture of assertiveness, a workplace where effectiveness can be achieved and your people will thrive. If this discussion on assertiveness and the power of assertive communication has resonated with you, I invite you to join me on the Engenesis Platform, or reach out to me to further the conversation.

LeadershipAssertivenessHigh PerformanceManagementAssertive Communication

Jeanette Mundy

About The Author

Jeanette is a transformational leadership coach, with 35 years of business, training, and leadership experience, who supports people to unleash their potential and develop their business as a self-expression of who they are and what they care about. She sees many leaders with unique skills and untapped potential who question their ability to lead. Many who operate out of the fear and judgement that who they are isn’t enough, and that what they do won’t be good enough. Jeanette believes that when leaders look to what is within them they can discover potential and uniqueness that was masked by their doubts, changing the conversation they have about themselves from “I’m not enough” to “I am enough”. As a result, Jeanette’s clients trust their decisions and powerfully choose their path forward.

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