Be an assertive team leader

What does it mean to be assertive? It means expressing your opinions and feelings as soon as you see something that bothers you, rather than waiting until you’re angry. It means speaking clearly and firmly, but respectfully and without blame. This leads to understanding and cooperation rather than disagreement and defensiveness, which works better for both you and your employees.

Let’s see how this works in practice. Here’s a typical workplace scenario: You have a relaxed atmosphere on your team because you value getting the job done more than you value keeping strict hours. Your people know this and they like it; they’re generally considerate about not abusing your flexibility, and they’re good about covering each other’s work when necessary. But lately, people are getting sloppier–taking long lunches, regularly coming in late or sometimes not showing up at all.

How do you react? Here are three possible responses:

1. You give a big speech. “Look, gang, this is getting out of hand. From now on, it’s by the book. Everyone gets here at 8:30 sharp. Lunch is 12 to 1–no exceptions. No one leaves until 4:30. If for any reason you’re going to be out of the office, I need to know about it in advance. No unexcused absences. Any questions?”

2. You wait a while. You don’t want to risk saying something you’ll regret. Things have worked well for a long time and surely they will again. No need to make a mountain out of a molehill. You like flexible hours as much as anyone else.

3. You talk to each person individually about their specific time issues. You ask the long-lunchers to make up time at the end of the day. You ask the latecomers to put a priority on being on time when you have staff meetings. You remind the unexcused absentees that it’s not really fair for them to expect others to cover for them without warning.

Which of these is the most assertive response? The last one. It’s direct and honest without being overbearing. It’s individualized and focuses clearly on specific problems, allowing each employee to understand what you want. It also shows respect for employees who are not abusing their work time.

By contrast, the first response is not assertive but downright aggressive–not making any distinction between the employees with time problems and the others, and blaming everyone for unspecified problems. (What does “getting out of hand” mean?) Meanwhile, the second response is passive–which, too often, means you’re just putting off an aggressive blowup in the future. Your problems are much more likely to go away after you say something than before you intervene.

The important habit for managers is to know when you’re forcing yourself into a false choice between doing nothing and blowing your stack. Instead of being either passive or aggressive, be assertive. You and your employees will both feel better and you’ll end up with the results you want.

Express yourself as soon as you see something bothering you, rather than waiting until you’re angry. Speak clearly and firmly, but respectfully and without blame.