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Boss, don’t bark, don’t bleat either
- Study establishes assertiveness can go wrong in both directions

New Delhi, Feb. 5: The key to successful organisational leadership may lie in exercising just the right levels of assertiveness — neither too little nor too much — psychologists reported today.

Studies by behavioural scientists in the US have shown that while for typical leadership traits such as charisma, intelligence, or conscientiousness, more is generally better, this is not the case with assertiveness.

The studies by researchers at Columbia University and Stanford University have shown that leaders viewed as only moderately assertive are often more effective than those seen as low or high in assertiveness.

“Assertiveness is 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 flavours,” said Daniel Ames, professor at the Columbia Business School.

While some studies in the past have suggested that assertiveness is good for leadership, other research has pointed to a negative link — the higher the level of assertiveness, the less effective the leader. But, until now, no one seems to have shown an effect in which assertiveness helps up to a point, beyond which higher levels prove detrimental.

This study establishes that assertiveness can go “wrong” in both directions, Ames said.

Ames and co-author Francis Flynn at Stanford University published their findings today in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association.

“When leaders are over-assertive, they may enjoy short-term results — such as getting an attractive settlement in a negotiation or winning an argument — but they begin to undermine relationships,” Ames told The Telegraph.

“Eventually, as these relationships fray, these leaders face increasing costs of many kinds, including demotivated workers, or subordinates afraid to share their opinions or controversial information,” he said.

On the other hand, Ames said, when leaders are under-assertive, they may endear themselves to others, but fail to gather resources or organise efforts to deliver results for organisations.

“People need leaders to lead, not to be friends,” he said.

Behavioural scientists in India said the findings appear to reinforce emerging perceptions of leadership traits in organisations. “This is in line with current thinking that leaders should not necessarily be over-assertive, but need to be concerned about those they work with,” said Leena Chatterjee, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, who specialises in research on human behaviour in workplaces.

“But it’s also important to understand that leadership is context-dependent. There may be certain situations or organisations in which high levels of assertiveness may be warranted,” Chatterjee added.

“An organisation that has very young or poorly trained people would demand high levels of assertiveness,” Chatterjee said.

In their studies, Ames and Flynn asked workers for their views on colleagues’ leadership strengths and weaknesses, and found that assertiveness was the most frequently-cited problem, more than charisma, intelligence or discipline.

Among the workers who cited assertiveness as a problem, 48 per cent said the issue was too much assertiveness, while the other 52 per cent said the problem was too little assertiveness.

The scientists believe their findings have take-home-messages for both organisations and individuals. “For individuals who are developing leadership skills, our work suggests that they should seek feedback on how others see their behaviour, particularly in terms of assertiveness,” Ames said. “For organisations, this implies that feedback should capture perceptions related to assertiveness,” he said. The studies may be interpreted to suggest that leadership may depend on an assertiveness quotient as much as on intelligence quotient. But, Ames cautioned, that their research does not suggest that assertiveness could be measured. “While assertiveness may be one of the most prevalent challenges for leaders, virtually anyone can change their assertiveness behaviours,” Ames said.

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