A few years ago, I was driving to a speaking gig, rehearsing my talk on communication when this notion came to me: The Boldness Barometer. Yes, I like alliteration.
The idea is that assertiveness exists on a spectrum from Not Assertive to Too Assertive. Let’s look at both ends of the spectrum and figure out how to find balance.
On one side of the spectrum are descriptors such as meek, shy, and reserved. Also, disengaged, disinterested, and unprepared. Let’s say I’m your boss. When you’re quiet in a meeting, I don’t know if you are clueless about what’s going on or if you have brilliant things to say but are too shy to share. Only you know which is true. But I’m going to form opinions about you, and those opinions will influence my view of you in the organization, and, more importantly, will impact the opportunities I might offer: promotions, projects, cool business trips, all of the things.
During my time in corporate human resources, I volunteered to create a leadership development program for our organization. The VP who was championing the program wanted to hand-pick the people he felt were ready. I asserted that we needed an application process so people could self-select. After some cajoling, he agreed to my idea. Sure enough, many of the people who applied were not ones on his list. Several applications were from employees who sat quietly in meetings and didn’t advocate for their ideas. Their passive behavior hadn’t left a favorable impression on him. Conversely, several people the VP wanted in the program never raised their hands. Had the VP insisted the program proceed the way he intended, many individuals would not have had access to an incredible opportunity while others would have shown up out of obligation instead of interest.
On the other side of the spectrum are words like bold, brash, brazen, and bitchy. (I don’t know why these all tend to be “B” words.) Too often we don’t engage for fear of being perceived negatively. It’s easier to be quiet.
To me, the trine of great leadership is humility, tact and assertiveness in equal parts. Consider the leaders you admire in your organization. It’s likely they have a healthy combination of these attributes.
How can we start to show up more assertively without tipping the scales and being perceived as aggressive? Here are some ideas to practice:
For those who think of themselves as having low boldness: Speak up in meetings – the person who has the courage to initiate an idea that counters what’s being discussed is the one who gets political points when that idea is recognized as having value. Don’t assume your ideas aren’t of merit. I’ve observed that when one person presents a counter idea, several other people nod in agreement, admitting that they too were thinking similar thoughts.
For those who think of themselves as having high boldness: If you tend to fall on this end of the spectrum, be careful not to speak over others to get your point across. Make sure the person you’re talking to is open to receiving what you have to say or your words won’t land. Keep clear of passive-aggressive qualifiers such as, “Frankly, I have to tell you” or “Truthfully” or “I need to be brutally honest.” These phrases force opinions on people who are not ready to receive them. I like to share this quote from Lori Palatnik in the talk I give about communication: “Those who boast about being ‘brutally honest’ are usually more brutal than honest.”
A passive take might be “You are better at this than me; I never know what I’m doing” versus the strength of “You do this really well.” Compliment the other person, don’t deprecate yourself.
When we’re balanced on the barometer, we’re strong in our communication and clear in our opinion. We’re aware of our audience and respectful in how we communicate. We’re giving credit to others and owning up to what we don’t know.
Sometimes people take a passive stance believing it’s the polite way to speak. In reality, passive is not polite. Passive is often manipulative and guilt-inducing. Worst of all, it conveys a lack of power. Passive says “I don’t have the courage to ask for what I want, and I’m not worthy.” In business, that translates into “I’m not ready for leadership and challenging opportunities.”
If you’re looking to show up more confidently, try editing out apologies from your emails. Words like “just” and “sorry” are often used as crutches and water down our punch. Also, find an accountability partner, someone who can remind you when you’re slipping into habits that don’t serve you.
Sometimes the way we show up is based on the situation we’re facing. One client explained how he shows up assertively when volunteering but not when working. At work, the stakes are higher.
Leaning into assertive communication is the path to clearer outcomes and better opportunities. How are you showing up in the world?