No matter how great a manager you are, bad things will happen at work: not every day, but occasionally. It’s how you handle those incidents—the ones that fill you with frustration, anger and dread—that determine what kind of leader you are. If you respond to those occasions aggressively (outwardly or passively), you’ll undermine your team, spread fear and start the rumor mill. If, on the other hand, you respond assertively, you’ll keep your team on track when things go wrong, and you’ll gain their confidence and admiration. Which do you choose?
You’re explaining an organizationwide initiative in a meeting with your staff. It’s a big shift, and many of your employees are unhappy with the change. You’re midsentence, discussing the rationale and objectives when Justin interrupts you, saying “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! Management is going to run this place into the ground. Pretty soon we’re all going to be looking for new jobs!”
How do you respond?
Aggressive response: “No, Justin. With that attitude, you’re the only one who’s going to be looking for a job. I’m sick of your insolence. If you cut me off one more time …”
Passive-aggressive response: “Somebody’s a little paranoid.”
Assertive response: “Just a minute, Justin. I understand your concerns, and I’ll get to those, but first I’m going to finish explaining the plan. When I’m done, we can discuss any specific concerns I don’t address.”
You and your team have been working long and hard on a particularly ambitious project. It’s a reach, but if you succeed, you’ll grow your organization and earn a great deal of respect from your superiors. With only a few days to go, it comes to your attention that the person to whom you delegated one component misread a form and as a result, set an incorrect “due date.” Now, for the project even to be considered, your team must submit it by tomorrow. What before seemed ambitious now seems impossible.
How to you respond?
Aggressive response: In front of the whole team, you explode “Helen, in my office now! Your incompetence may just have cost us the biggest payoff this office has ever gone after!”
Passive-aggressive response: Without explaining the actual issue, you say to a few members of your team in the break room “Sorry all your hard work was for nothing. Unfortunately, somebody never learned how to use a calendar …”
Assertive response: You meet privately with Helen, and then address your team, saying “I know you’re frustrated. I’m frustrated. It’s a frustrating situation. It’s not, however, an insurmountable situation. If we all buckle down today and reprioritize a bit, we can still make this happen.”
Neither assertive nor aggressive people ignore problems. Employees don’t think of either as “pushovers” or “weak.” However, the assertive boss earns his or her employees’ respect and trust, whereas the aggressive boss forfeits them. Assertive bosses become angry and frustrated—and even scared—but unlike aggressive bosses, they know how to calm themselves and bring their emotions in check so they can respond rationally and intelligently.
How do you behave assertively?