People in leadership roles can struggle to find the right level of assertiveness.
The balance between being seen as weak or borderline aggressive is often only the absence or over-presence of assertiveness. As one academic described it, “a moderate level of assertiveness may be a background condition… Just as food is rarely praised for being perfectly salted, leaders may somewhat infrequently be praised for being perfectly assertive.”
For female leaders, striking the assertiveness balance is often even more precarious given the stereotypes of femininity and expectations of how women are supposed to behave. Often, the desire to avoid appearing aggressive can result in female leaders expressing their concerns or requests in an apologetic or overly accommodating manner, rather than being clear and straightforward with their communications. Consequently, this can weaken their impact and, long-term, can hold women back from attaining the most senior positions in an organisation.
So given the growing pressure and spotlight on businesses to have a better gender balance in their senior teams, what can organisations do to enable their female leaders to be ‘perfectly assertive’?
Whilst many focus on what women themselves need to do, a two-pronged approach is required to build female leaders’ assertiveness as well as remove the organisational barriers: neither of which is easy.
We recommend taking the following steps:
1. Take an organisational perspective, within your leadership population, as to the prevailing norm. Are leaders known for being outspoken and direct, or is the expectation that leaders create harmony and avoid conflict? And what are the institutional processes and unspoken ways of working that perpetuate this norm? These are the barriers you need to address in order to enable leaders to adopt that right level of assertiveness
2. In terms of talent management, lateral moves to different parts of the business can release leaders from the historical biases others may have, particularly for those who have long tenure within the company
3. Individually, how can you equip leaders with the skills and confidence to hold difficult conversations and express their requests in a straightforward, unapologetic way?