Thursday, April 19, 2012

Assertiveness - what's the right balance for in-house counsel?

Most corporate clients want their in-house counsel to be knowledgeable, have opinions, and be tough, but not necessarily opinionated, and certainly not pushy. So having the right level of assertiveness can be tricky business.

If you're a difficult person, with a little fine-tuning, you may be able to turn your difficult nature into the desired competency of assertiveness, I wrote in my “difficult boss” post earlier this year.  Like Bob Sutton, I view “assertiveness” as an important personal competency, when properly measured. And it needs to be tailored to each of your clients and situations at hand.

On the subject of balanced assertiveness, here are thoughts from others:
  • The leadership skill to work on. In a recent post, author-consultant Scott Edinger says: “If I had to pick one skill for the majority of leaders I work with to improve, it would be assertiveness. Not because being assertive is such a wonderful trait in and of itself. Rather, because of its power to magnify so many other leadership strengths.” The One Skill All Leaders Should Work On (HBR Mar. 2012). 
  • Being perfectly assertive. “Being just assertive enough, while not easy for any boss, is one of the most important features of a good one. . . . the best bosses get the balance right on any given day, and in myriad interactions with their followers, peers, and own bosses." The Delicate Art of Being Perfectly Assertive (June 2010). 
  • Balanced niceness. "The problem isn’t being a nice guy (or gal), the problem is in finding the right balance. . . . What is 'niceness?' How should it look? The authors define it as: . . . Striving to balance assertiveness with cooperation to achieve a spirit of collaboration." Review of the leadership book Nice Guys Can Get the Corner Office (on Leading Blog).
  • No. 1 leadership deficiency. “Recent research . . . has found that the greatest identifiable trait that can hold someone back from becoming a great leader is being too assertive—or not assertive enough. In other words, assertiveness that is out of balance. . . . [E]xcessive or inadequate assertiveness was the No. 1 issue listed in the weakness column when it came to evaluating individuals’ leadership potential.” Assertiveness: The Meekest and Mightiest Make the Worst Leaders (Leadership Now, Oct. 2006). 
  • Bigger challenge for women. For woman, assertiveness-balance is a potentially more difficult competency to master: “The research shows that in corporate cultures strong females are often thoroughly disliked. In a 1990 study, D. Butler found that people respond negatively to assertive women. Assertive men, on the other hand, are admired as "managing for strong performance. . . . Much more recently, A. Eagly and L. Carli (2007) have found that self promotion is particularly risky for women. . . . All too often, she is heartily disliked for her "boastfulness" and seen as much less deserving of support by bosses and subordinates.” Likeability and Women's Leadership (Sylvia Ann Hewlett, HBR Mar. 2008).
Woman or man, if you want to be LeadingInHousesm, spend some time mastering your assertiveness.

This summary was prepared by Perry Cone and posted at

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