Why managers' over-assertiveness is costly at work

25 February 2015 -


Researchers urge extrovert bosses to take greater care with how their behaviour affects others – and point out that assertiveness and strong performance don’t go hand in hand

Jermaine Haughton

Does one of your senior colleagues regularly overwhelm other staff with an overabundance of personality? Does another make offensive jokes, seemingly uninhibited? Those management styles are often construed as bullying in the workplace – but a new study has shown that individuals who display over-the-top behaviour at work are likely to be quite unaware of how they are perceived.

Based on their recent studies for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, US researchers Daniel R Ames and Abbie S Wazlawek explained this week in the Wall Street Journal that many managers struggle to grasp how they are viewed by others.

For example, in one investigation, several hundred US professionals were asked to rate their bosses on a variety of different attributes, including assertiveness and effectiveness. The resulting bell curve showed that leaders who emerged as moderately assertive occupied a peak of effectiveness, but performance metrics fell away at either side for over-assertive and under-assertive leaders. The trouble with policing this, though, is that over-assertive managers – for obvious reasons – are far less likely to be told by their colleagues that they have a problem, and far less likely to believe it.

Ames and Wazlawek explained that, in order for bosses to close the gap between their self-perception and the views of people around them, they must be willing to accept feedback from colleagues and take small, concrete steps towards improvement. This should be carried out in three stages:

1. Anonymous ratings

Un-named assessments in the form of ratings scales or open-ended questions could be used to gather opinions from those who have worked closely with the boss in question. The authors point out the importance of addressing the right topics – such as skills and qualities – but say that, along with those traits, it’s critical to take stock of blind spots. Assertiveness is one, in terms of how the manager pushes to make their ideas hear. But on the flip side is receptivity: the ability to take in what people say and let them feel that they’ve been heard.

2. Thorough follow-up

To avoid a “mix of noise and signal” emerging from the data, Ames and Wazlawek suggest that HR personnel should look for areas of consistency across multiple points – eg, patterns that stretch throughout the ratings questions and open-ended comments. Those patterns should be used as the basis of follow-up talks that should spur the employee to learn about how their behaviour can be improved, rather than defend themselves or provide excuses. As the WSJ column explains: “Tell people ‘This is what I’m hearing’, and encourage them to react and expand on how [their] behaviour is coming across and where the issues are.” A responsible manager, the researchers say, would listen, probe to understand more, express gratitude for the feedback and then tweak their behaviour accordingly.

3. Small but Concrete Steps

Finally, the results of the feedback need to be put into action. The researchers advise managers and workers alike to take small but well-considered steps towards boosting self-awareness. With that in mind, companies should sketch out which dimensions of self-awareness matter most to them, given their aspirations and values. “Do something – one thing – that can initiate a process that might lead to greater self-awareness,” they write. “Good but vague intentions that don’t earn a spot on your calendar are likely to get lost in the shuffle.”

In its recent report The MoralDNA of Performance, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) also found that assertiveness and other bullish behaviours were far from ideal for effective leadership. Indeed, when the report came to rate organisations on the ethic of care, it found a nine-point – or 14% – difference between high- and low-performing entities: a clear sign that more considerate approaches win the day. The report concluded: “managers should focus more on the consequences of their actions on others and think their decisions through in terms of the ripple effect they may have.”

Download a PDF of The MoralDNA of Performance.

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