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Assertiveness: The Meekest and Mightiest Make the Worst Leaders

Balance. Easy to understand, tough to practice.

The overuse of strength creates a weakness. Every strength has a point where it becomes a liability. Maturity and self-control help to rein in the excesses of our personality.

Not surprisingly, recent research by Stanford professor Frank Flynn has found that the greatest identifiable trait that can hold someone back from becoming a great leader is being too assertive—or not assertive enough. In other words, assertiveness that is out of balance.

In the Stanford Graduate School of Business News, Marguerite Rigoglioso reports:
Analyzing three years’ worth of written and survey data on students, as well as students’ assessments of their own former bosses, Flynn and Ames found that excessive or inadequate assertiveness was the No. 1 issue listed in the weakness column when it came to evaluating individuals’ leadership potential. “It was mentioned twice as frequently as any other issue. It appeared as a clear factor in weakness comments more than lack of intelligence, conscientiousness, and charisma combined,” Flynn says. Specifically, what the researchers found was essentially an “inverted U” between the ratings of a person’s assertiveness and his or her leadership ability: Up to a certain point it was positively associated, but then it went back down.

Assertiveness Chart

“The analogy we use is that assertiveness is like salt in a sauce: Too much spoils the dish, but too little is equally distracting,” Flynn says. Interestingly, at the “just right” point, assertiveness disappears as a leadership quality, either positive or negative. “While getting assertiveness wrong in one direction or the other dominates perceptions of weakness, getting it right is not a major theme in perceptions of strengths,” Flynn says. “In other words, nobody ever compliments the chef on a perfectly salted dish.”

What Flynn and Ames discovered was that when people were determined to be extremely assertive, the social costs of their behavior—others’ hurt feelings and damaged relationships—were seen to override the positive aspects of their ability to get the job done. Conversely, when they were deemed too passive, their inability to move projects along and achieve goals was what stuck in people’s minds, not their ability to preserve social harmony. “People pay more attention to what’s bad about assertive or non-assertive behavior than what’s good about it,” Flynn explains.

Posted by Michael McKinney at 12:32 AM
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