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In my quest for the perfect MBA program, I am doing quite a bit of research. Several B-Schools have monthly magazines where they publish different articles on research conducted at the school and on other current matters.

Columbia BS publishes “Ideas at Work: Connecting Research to the Practice of Business”. It is a great magazine with some interesting articles. I highly recommend it even if you are not that much into business. Today, I came across an article appropriately called “Jerk or wimp: What’s your assertiveness style?” In it, Daniel Ames who led the research on this topic, comments on how your degree of assertiveness can determine your success as a leader. I encourage you to read the entire article, but there is one portion that stroke a chord with me.

Given that assertiveness is partly a personality issue — and therefore difficult to change — what can people do to change their assertiveness style?

I like to think of it more specifically as assertive behavior, and people can change their behavior. We see a lot of our students doing this, and a lot of them end up becoming very eager and committed to doing it. Can you rewrite your personality? There’s a lot of debate in the academic literature about whether that’s possible or not. But we can set that debate aside and focus on assertive behavior. You have a choice about how to start a conflict. You can pound your fists on the table and shout and berate your partner and act like an alpha male, or you can open up and cultivate rapport and work hard to listen and put your partner at ease. Personality has a role in that, but that’s a behavioral choice. Can people become more aware of their behavioral repertoire and make different choices? Absolutely. We see it all the time with our students. We’re not asking people to rewrite their personalities, but we are encouraging them to rethink what behaviors are most appropriate in different situations. And we find with the right awareness and the right kind of coaching they can absolutely do it.

Getting candid feedback is the first step. Often this means some kind of multirater or 360-degree evaluation system, because the people around us won’t tell us to our faces that they think we’re a jerk or they think we’re a wimp. This may be especially true for people who are over-assertive. We found that while most people don’t really know how they’re seen by others in terms of their assertiveness, people who are low on assertiveness tend to be slightly more aware. They know the times that they’ve been pushed around. It might be a very frustrating but common occurrence for them. People who are highly assertive may not always see the consequences of their behavior, often because they see that they get their way. But what they don’t see is that their partner walks out of the room frustrated, angry, disappointed, feeling abused.

One additional reason for this is that highly assertive people may surround themselves with a handful of colleagues who are kind of like them. And so they’re around people whose behavior looks a lot like theirs, and they believe that this is the way that things should get done. Once they leave that environment and engage other people, they don’t realize the consequences of their behavior and how it’s affecting other people’s perceptions of them. I don’t think anyone has as their goal that they want to alienate and frustrate other people. Most people don’t want to be seen as a jerk, but they don’t realize that their behavior is causing other people to have these perceptions of them. If they can see what their behavior is doing to others, then they understand this. And then it becomes natural for them to try to recalibrate their behavior.

The second step is to think about the costs and benefits of your style. If you’re a very assertive person, think about what that allows you to do, and think about how that limits you. If you’re not very assertive at all, again, think about the costs and benefits. The immediate imperative is not that you must change or that everyone should seek some middle level of assertiveness. People should first be more aware of how their assertiveness is seen by those around them and think about what that affords them and what that prevents them from doing.

One response is not to change one’s personality but to think about reaching out to others who can complement your own style. A real wimp might team up with a hard-charging agent or representative when heading into a negotiation with a tough adversary. If your problem is that you’re overly aggressive or overly competitive, if you need to be in a situation that calls for tenderness or empathy, bring in somebody who has some of those skills to work with you on cultivating trust in a difficult situation. So there are ways to work around this without having to rewrite yourself. But we find that a lot of the managers and students we work with, when they hear this feedback, they want to change. They don’t want to change into a different person, but they want to be strategic about the repertoire of behaviors that they can bring to bear in a conflict or in interpersonal exchanges.”

In my life, I have found many times that I have an issue with “assertiveness”. I’m what you describe as a type-A personality. I consider myself to be driven, intelligent and just a go-getter. I like to resolve problems and I like to feel accomplished. Well, when it comes to work this could be a challenge when you are partnered up with some type-B personalities that are a bit more relaxed. You want to get the work done, and you want to do a good job at it, but you don’t want to be a jerk about it to your team. What to do if they don’t comply or they don’t want to do something??? It is a struggle. How you are viewed is almost as important as how productive you are. But at the same time how the above paragraph states, there needs to be a balance. It is a behavior and all behaviors could be learned and adapted.

In conclusion, I have been trying to “adapt” my behaviors and really scale my assertiveness to the appropriate levels depending on the situation. I’m experimenting with this at work and also at home. I’m working on my listening skills as well. I asked one of my assistants in my last job to describe my leadership style (in all honesty since it was my last day)? She said that I was tough but at the same time fair. She went on to say that she liked working with me because she knew her point of view could be heard and felt that she was given a fair chance. Above all, she said she learned a lot. I don’t know how honest she was, but I am trying to be a better leader. I do confess that sometimes in the face of authority, I do not feel assertive enough. So those are all points that I need to work on, but what about you? Have you experienced this in your life? How assertive are you? Are you a wimp or a jerk?

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