Dean Croshere
Dean Croshere
August 2023

The Assertive Manager

I was scared of Steve, my boss.

“Steve is going to hit the ceiling if he finds out about this,” I told Julie, my direct report. There was some issue or another on the production floor.

I asked Julie to quietly fix the issue in a way that was unlikely to bring it to Steve’s attention. It came to his attention anyway.

It was two days later, and Steve was in a rotten mood. Steve didn’t like that the issue had occurred or how it had been resolved. He did not appear to be aware that I knew about the problem or had told Julie how to handle it. She had covered for me. I was trying to figure out how to make this new and bigger problem go away, but I could feel Julie staring daggers into me. Was I going to throw her under the bus?

No. That was obviously the wrong call. At this point, I told Steve that I had asked her to fix the problem in that way, but then I told my report that we should fix it again in the way my boss wanted. At that point, she went off to resolve the issue while Steve and I moved on to other issues. I never had another conversation about the issue with either of them.

A watercolor of a woman and two men standing talking on a manufacturing floor

I think I handled the situation poorly from start to finish. At the time, I felt like I was making the only choices available to me, because that is the way non-assertive behaviors appear to the people taking them. In retrospect, I was a passive manager. As I see it, these are the ways I was passive:

  • I didn’t tell my boss about my feelings about him. I didn’t even let myself accept those feelings, yet still I let those feelings inform the decisions I made.
  • I communicated my fear to the people that report to me without owning my own emotions. That is, I blamed Steve for my fear by projecting his possible response to the issue.
  • I did not ask enough questions of my direct report. I did not ask what she wanted to happen or what she thought should happen. I did not communicate what I wanted to happen (other than implicitly stating that I didn’t want Steve to find out about it).
  • Instead I attempted to smooth over the situation in order to prevent conflict.
  • I did not tell my boss what I wanted to happen or represent what my report wanted to happen. I couldn’t have. I didn’t have the tools or the information.

This being the case…

It is hard to be assertive. Downright scary at times. The more I learn about assertiveness, the more I realize how rare it is, particularly in the business world.

I have been involved in many conversations in my life where my colleagues and I diagnosed the problem in a situation to be the behavior of other people. They can’t do this right, we agreed. If they were able to do it right, this problem would be avoided, and we wouldn’t be in this situation. Conversations like that feel good. It is reassuring and, since it is with people I value and trust, it is validating. Yet not much comes of it. The problems seem to keep reoccurring until something major breaks.

I think the only solution is to accept the hard truth and obvious truth: While we must be informed by the behavior of others, we remain responsible for our own behavior. After all, our own behavior is the only thing we control. If we accept that we cannot expect other people to change, then there is one assertive thing we can say in response to every frustration we find with our teammates, partners, employees, and even our friends:

“This being the case, now what?”

In other words, “I accept others as they are. I then make a decision on what I want to do based upon that acceptance.”

Assertive Managers

David Richo’s How to be an Adult is a handbook that I rely on often. He lays out in no uncertain terms the rules for being assertive. I adapt them here for managers:

The Assertive Manager:

  • knows what they want and what they are afraid of
  • communicates clearly and boldly, but also may choose to keep secrets if necessary
  • receives the assertiveness of others as the gift it is and recognizes their own emotional reactions to that assertiveness
  • asks clearly and plainly for what they want
  • checks out their feelings, doubts, and fears with the people involved. For instance, if they feel the need to vent frustration with a team member after a meeting, they consider finding an assertive way to communicate their underlying emotion to the person in question
  • is aware of common aggressive and passive behaviors. They are first on the lookout for those behaviors in themself and will take responsibility for them
  • is also on the lookout for those behaviors in the people who report to them. The Assertive Manager can decide whether or not to take responsibility for finding a solution to that behavior
  • knows they can make mistakes. Takes responsibility for those mistakes
  • can change their mind and can choose to communicate when they change their mind
  • is comfortable saying “no” or “maybe”
  • is comfortable hearing “no” or “maybe”
  • is not rushed to make a decision, but also does not avoid making a decision

Give up control

It is scary to be out of control. After all, when we don’t control the outcome of any given situation, we might find ourselves confronted by an outcome that we don’t like. That feels transparently bad. I know my instinct has historically been to avoid the transparently bad situation and attempt to control the outcome. For example, when I told Julie that Steve was going to hit the ceiling, I was attempting to control the outcome. It didn’t work. It rarely does. I was giving up power in an attempt to maintain control.

The powerful path is to accept reality:

  • I do not control outcomes.
  • I do not control other people.
  • I only control my own actions.

In my pursuit of being An Assertive manager, I am seeking to give up the illusion of control. As a part of that I strive to accept outcomes that I don’t like and use them to inform my next action with the same assertive statement: This being true, now what?

Passive and Aggressive Managers

Passive managerial behavior gives away power. Afraid of hearing “no,” a passive manager does not ask for what they want. Over-politeness, avoidance, overcommitting themself, and avoiding decisive action are all the hallmarks of passivity. Managers who displays passive behavior are likely overwhelmed and feel under-supported. These managers can only establish a healthy workload and be supported by their team through assertive behavior.

Aggressive managerial behavior attempts to replace power with control. Afraid of hearing “no,” an aggressive manager uses control and manipulation to get their way. Blaming, micromanaging, competitiveness, and vindictiveness are all hallmarks of aggression. Managers who displays aggressive behavior are likely frustrated by their failure to find people who can do basic tasks and feel surrounded by people who are doing them wrong. These managers can only build a trusting and highly performing-team through assertive behavior.

Do not give up power

The most powerful tool available to The Assertive Manager is the one available to every single assertive person: the ability to assert what they want to every person in their life in every interaction if they desire. This might appear to be aggressive to people unaccustomed to assertive behavior. It is reasonable for The Assertive Manager to soften their language and provide guidance and support to the people they work with until they feel confident and assertive in responding.

Assertiveness is not about winning or The Assertive Manager best getting their way. Assertiveness is not about the outcome in any way. It is about authentically presenting ourselves and holding true to our belief that we are enough. When we authentically present ourselves, we are powerful.

… Now what?

“The art in assertiveness is to ask strongly for what you want and then let go of it if the answer is No.”

This is one of my favorite quotes from How to be an Adult. I find Richo’s idea to be haunting. If I could confidently ask for what I wanted and then confidently receive any response, I would maintain my full power. I could bring out the best in everyone around me. I can’t though. I find myself scared to express my desire. Part of the reason I’m scared is that I still find myself reactive to responses. It is scary to be out of control.

So it is a process. A journey to continuously expand and grow into assertiveness. I use the idea held in Richo’s quote as a mantra and a recognition that the main thing that keeps me from expressing my desire is my fear of hearing “no.” The thing I let go of if the answer is “no” is not the desire I initially asked for but the pain of hearing “no.” It is an acknowledgment that no is scary and often painful to hear. If I were in control, I probably would never hear “no” even though I should.

But I do hear no. Upon hearing “no,” I accept the response. “No” means “no.” First, I must evaluate and process my own emotional reaction. There are some old stories that come up, I can’t pretend they don’t exist. Once I process that, and processing that may take some time, I still (and always) maintain my full suite of assertive tools. Now I can re-examine what steps to take next. I should start by revisiting my desire and then establish a new path. I remind myself of to stay present and powerful by asking, “this being true, now what?”