Leadership and Assertiveness Costs

There can be too much or too little of a good thing when it comes to assertiveness in managers. Recent research has found ratings of managerial leadership are highest at a moderate level of managerial assertiveness, with low and high assertiveness being associated with lower ratings. This summary will review possible work-related costs that may explain this effect.

Assertiveness Defined

Assertiveness is defined as speaking up for oneself and acting in one’s own interests (i.e., values, goals, and preferences). Assertiveness is thought of in terms of a continuum, ranging from being submissive to hostile. It is a relatively unique characteristic in that assertiveness can be a problem if it is too high or too low; other characteristics (such as intelligence or charisma) are usually only considered problematic if they are too low.

Aspects of Leadership

The research examined how perceptions of managerial assertiveness affected ratings of four leadership aspects:
  • Motivation
  • Social Influence
  • Managing Conflict
  • Team Work
A pattern was found that showed extreme ratings of assertiveness negatively affected the ratings of each of these aspects.

Assertiveness Costs: The Buddy and the Boss

The differences in leadership ratings may be based on different social and instrumental costs associated with varying degrees of assertiveness. When managers exhibit low levels of assertiveness, they may be more well-liked but be perceived as weak and not able to get the job done; this weakness can be thought of as the instrumental cost of being too passive or submissive. On the other hand, managers who are extremely aggressive may be thought of as highly effective in terms of getting work accomplished but suffer a social cost in that they are not well accepted as leaders because they are personally disliked.

Implications for Practice

Managers with a generally moderate level of assertiveness may be viewed more positively as a leader compared to low or high assertiveness managers. Moderate managers have the ability to accomplish the instrumental tasks at work without being socially abrasive. Some suggestions for encouraging managers to be moderately assertive include:
  • Using skills training and coaching to teach managers how to be more (or less) assertive
  • Regularly emphasizing the importance of moderate assertiveness to help ensure managerial behavior doesn’t revert back to previous unsatisfactory levels
  • Changing managers’ norms about what is considered acceptable assertiveness
A key to improving perceptions of managerial leadership is changing managers’ expectations about what level of assertiveness is appropriate when their expectations are not congruent with how much assertiveness is actually necessary. This can be done through changing norms and skills using training or coaching. For those people who will not change their assertiveness if needed, other methods may be necessary in areas such as hiring or promotion to reduce the number of these individuals in managerial roles.

Interpretation by:

Donnie Johnson

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Ames, D. R., & Flynn, F. J. (2007). What breaks a leader: The curvilinear relation between assertiveness and leadership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 307-324.