Are most leaders assertive?

Let’s build bridges, not walls. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes I cover a topic so frequently that I slip into default mode and stop really thinking about what I’m saying. That’s been the case recently with the topic of assertive communication.

Like with many things, when we think about leaders who practice aggressive or passive communication we tend to think about extremes. The person who needs to yell in order to get their point across, or the person who withdraws when a conversation begins to feel even a little confrontational. There’s a lot more that falls into both categories of being aggressive or passive. Here are just a couple of quick examples.

Two signs of aggressive behavior (source: workplacebullying.org). 1) Rationalization. Justifying or defending your behavior or making excuses for acting in a particular manner. 2) Minimization. Minimizing, discounting, or failing to address someone’s legitimate concerns or feelings.

Two signs of passive behavior (source: Harvard Business Review, June 2014). 1) You didn’t share your honest view on a topic, even when asked. 2) You got upset with someone, but didn’t let them know why.

These few examples (there are many more) certainly broaden the range of what might be aggressive or passive communication.

For clarification, these are the basic definitions that I frequently use.

Aggressive: people who want to achieve their goals without any regard for the needs of other people.

Passive: this is based on conformity and compromising your own values and needs in order to avoid confrontation.

Assertive: these communicators are confident in delivering their message and work hard to create a mutually satisfying environment.

What has really caught my attention recently is the last phrase of assertive communication: work hard to create a mutually satisfying environment. How many leaders do we see today following that description? It feels like we’ve moved much farther toward winning at all cost rather than working hard to create a mutually satisfying environment, in others words, working hard to create a win-win scenario.

Maybe it’s because it really is hard work and it’s easier to either ignore the other party’s needs, or to conform to avoid confrontation. To model assertive communication, leaders need to work hard to create win-win scenarios. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Let’s build bridges, not walls.”

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