What makes a good leader - the assertiveness quotient

Armen Hareyan's picture

The best leaders employ just the right amount of assertiveness.

Organizational leaders who come across as low or high in assertiveness tend to be seen as less effective, according to a study coming out in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA). Leaders in the middle may have an "optimal" level of assertiveness, but there is plenty of company on the extremes. The research suggests that being seen as under- or over-assertive may be the most common weakness among aspiring leaders.

In a series of studies, Daniel Ames, PhD, a professor at Columbia Business School, and Francis Flynn, PhD, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, asked workers for their views of colleagues' leadership strengths and weaknesses. The most common strengths reported included conventional leadership traits like intelligence, self-discipline, and charisma. But the most common weaknesses reported revealed a surprising picture that was not just the reverse of strengths. Across several samples of leaders and potential leaders, Ames and Flynn found that assertiveness was by far the most frequently-mentioned problem, sometimes more than charisma, intelligence, and self-discipline combined.

One reason for this finding is that unlike charisma, which is usually problematic only when it's lacking, potential leaders got assertiveness "wrong" in both directions. And in one of the studies examined, Ames and Flynn's research team coded nearly a thousand comments given by coworkers about colleagues' leadership behavior. The most common leadership adjective in the weakness comments was "assertive," twice as common as the runners-up such as "focused," "able," and "sure." Overall, more than half of the descriptions of weaknesses made clear references to assertiveness. Of these comments, 48 percent suggested too much assertiveness and the remainder described too little.

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"Assertiveness dominated reports of leadership weaknesses, though it wasn't nearly as common in colleagues' comments about strengths. When leaders get assertiveness wrong, it's glaring and obvious, but when they get it right, it seems to disappear," said Ames. "We say it's 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 flavors. No one compliments a sauce for being perfectly salted, and it's just as unusual for a leader's perfect touch with assertiveness to attract much notice."

After finding that assertiveness was such a widespread challenge for leaders, Ames and Flynn sought to understand what was driving the effect at both extremes. The answer: different reasons for failure at each end. "Aspiring leaders who are low in assertiveness can't stand up for their interests, and they suffer by being ineffective at achieving goals and delivering results. On the other hand, people high in assertiveness are often insufferable. So, even though they may get their way, they're chocking off relationships with the people around them. As time goes by, the social costs add up and start to undermine the results," Ames notes. "Most effective leaders push hard enough to get their way but not so hard that they can't get along."

Ames and Flynn caution that their work does not suggest that the solution for leaders is to be moderately assertive all the time. Instead, they claim that leaders seen as moderately assertive may be better able to ratchet up their responses when called for and to tone down their behavior when necessary. Leaders stuck at the extremes of assertiveness may have a narrower repertoire of behavior.

While the idea that neither combative managers nor wallflowers make the best leaders may seem obvious, Ames and Flynn say many people are surprised when they learn that they're seen by others as off base. "We often find that students and executives are unaware of how other people see their behavior. One reason is because people typically don't get candid feedback on things like assertiveness," said Ames. "Who wants to tell the overbearing boss that he or she is a jerk?"

By The American Psychological Association

This page is updated on July 8, 2013.