Many experts view Emotional Intelligence (EQ) as critical to success in leadership, as well as in other aspects of life. One of the 15 attributes that comprise Emotion Intelligence is assertiveness. Assertiveness, not surprisingly, is closely linked with self-confidence. It is an important quality for leaders but, as is often the case, too much of a good thing can be bad.
We’ve all seen managers who are literally off the scale when it comes to being “assertive”. These people probably believe it is their job to be the strong, decisive boss who will never back down or show a moment’s hesitation. In an effort to establish authority, they constantly exercise their brand of assertiveness through loud bravado, and by browbeating both subordinates and peers into submission. Their attacks are often personally directed and publicly delivered. The word, in fact, that best describes them is “bully.”
There are several reasons why a boss may become a bully. He may have an outdated view of what good leadership entails. Or, he could simply lack self-confidence. The journal “Psychological Science” recently published a paper entitled “When the Boss Feels Inadequate”. The researchers claim that leaders who feel in over their heads resort to browbeating to protect their egos. When people feel incompetent in a high powered position, actual aggression kicks in. (Anyone who experienced schoolyard bullies as a child will recognize the truth in this concept.)
There’s a big difference between people who can assert the ideas they believe in, and those who aggressively attack those who differ in opinion. In their book, “The EQ Edge”, Steven J. Stein and Howard E. Book describe the difference between assertiveness and aggression. Assertiveness is the ability to express your feelings and thoughts, and stand up for your beliefs and rights. It infers, however, that you are able to do so without being abusive (i.e., you respect the other person) and while remaining open to new ideas (i.e., you are able to change your mind or seek “win/win”).
If you find yourself reacting to those around you in an inflexible and aggressive manner, it may be a sign that you are trying to compensate for your own perceived shortcomings, or confusing healthy assertiveness with a need to appear infallible. Even good leaders can be wrong; great leaders can, first, accept their shortcomings and, second, enlist the support and talents of their team to compensate for their own weaknesses.
Whether you think you are on the giving or receiving end of aggressive behavior, Stein and Book offer some great insights and exercises in “The EQ Edge”. It’s definitely worth the read.