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From Passive to Assertive Leadership: 6 Actions to improve Accountability

Standing your ground with compassion and conviction is important for a leader. Yet, we often fall into a passive leadership style when we worry about upsetting others or coming across as being aggressive.

Many well-intentioned leaders often grapple with the fear of being perceived as overly aggressive in their leadership approach. To steer clear of causing offence, they frequently resort to behaving in a manner that not only diminishes their own power but also that of their team members.

The main reason is that we confuse being an assertive leader with being an aggressive leader. But an assertive leader is very different to an aggressive leader. 

An aggressive leader is focused on getting their own way. They use manipulation, fear and blame. Self-interest and a need for power underlies their communication style.

While an assertive leader prioritises achieving optimal work outcomes. They handle situations with objectivity and show respect for others' perspectives. They are always focused on finding the right solution that is best for all. 

An assertive leader has conviction in their leadership - they know what needs to be done and they clearly communicate to others. Their style ensures accountability and that people feel valued and heard.

But when a leader worries about being aggressive, they slide down the scale into passive leadership. It all stems from a need to people-please - so they ask vague questions, in the hope the other person will interpret what they really mean. They fear signs of resistance, so they apologise or tip-toe around their reports hoping not to upset them.

In other words, they ask for permission rather than stepping up and being the leader everyone needs wants them to be.

And then of course, there is passive-aggressive leadership. Many leaders find they tend to be more passive-aggressive when promoting themselves internally. Other times, it's when they are writing an email and they are frustrated that people aren't doing what they want. 

Assertive Leadership

So how do you avoid falling into a passive leadership style? Here are some tips to help you.

1. Find the value - If we tend to be more passive, people will disrespect our leadership.It's time to acknowledge and embody your leadership role.  You want to get clear on what you need and your expectations. A leader who is assertive effectively harmonises their own desires and requirements with the rights and needs of those around them.

Start by focusing on the work to be done and the best way to achieve it. Many leaders find they are assertive when they know what to do and how to do it. It's when they don't know something, that they tend to be more passive in their approach. 

Interestingly, leaders are also more assertive when the are advocating for their team or protecting them from rude customers. Unpacking when we are more likely to be assertive helps us amplify that into other areas.

2. Shift your mindset - Reframe your belief that standing up for what you want is aggressive. There are times when you will have team members who don't want to fix up their work, make a decision or find a solution. During these times, it is perfectly acceptable to firmly tell them what to do. After all, that's what leaders are for - to step in and provide the clarity people need to get the job done well.

3. Minimise the use of passive questions - If you tend to lean towards passive leadership, you may notice yourself asking questions that give off the impression of seeking permission or conveying uncertainty. While posing insightful questions is typically a positive attribute of leadership, there are certain types of questions that betray our self-confidence.

For example:

Passive: "Could you please fix this mistake?" That might sound polite, but it also sounds like fixing poor work is optional. The tone is also appeasing.

Assertive: "Please fix the incorrect amount on line 3 on the P&L statement." Clear, specific and holds people accountable.

4. Remove deferential words - Eliminate words or phrases that undermine your authority. These commonly used phrases diminish your leadership presence.

  • Just. Back In 2015, former Google executive Ellen Leanse and her colleagues banned the word just from their communications. They realised that removing it both clarified and strengthened their message, while including it was a subtle message of subordination.
  • I hope this make sense - I once made the mistake of signing off an email to a client with this phrase. My boss reworded it because he said it made me sound like I didn't believe what I said was easy to understand. And then he questioned, why I would write something that isn't clear. He said to me "This makes you sound unsure of yourself." A better way is to say "If you require additional details, I'm here to help."
  • Kind of  - I often find leaders use this term to ease a negative message. Unfortunately, it makes you sound unsure. Remove it.

5. Avoid talking negatively about yourself - It's quite common that passive leaders use language that puts themselves down.

  • Should.  Critiquing yourself with "shoulds" is like burdening yourself with unnecessary moral judgments. By eliminating these "shoulds," you can break free from the constraints of moralising and better connect with your true wants and needs
  • "I'm sorry for that typo" We all make mistakes. Rather than fall into the trap of regularly apologising, turn it around by saying "Great eye! Thank you for catching that."
  • "I'm talking too much" Maybe you are. But a better way to say it is "I process information by speaking out loud, thanks for letting me talk it out." 

6. Get comfortable with saying no - If you fall into people-pleasing, then you are more likely to say yes to everything. Instead of automatically saying yes to a request, a better way is "I can see this is important. Let me check my priorities and see what can be moved or removed."

It's also common to say "I'm sorry" when we really mean no. A better way to decline a request is "Unfortunately, no, I won’t be able to mentor this individual. I am happy to pass on some suggestions if required.”

Reducing Passive Leadership

Speaking your mind or asserting your feelings, needs or beliefs can feel uncomfortable.

But it's what is expected and required from a leader.

Avoiding direct communication and skirting around issues diminishes the trust and respect you have with your team.

Your people look up to you to show them the way forward and the more assertive you are in your communication, the more confidence people will have in your leadership style.

Certainty is a compelling trait of exceptional leaders. As long as our certainty exceeds other’s doubt, we are leading assertively and in control. But if their doubt overshadows our certainty, it can lead to challenging issues that are hard to rectify.

It requires fully embodying what is needed from a leader - to stand your ground, articulate your goals, expectations, boundaries and say what you think without second-guessing yourself or apologising.

The benefits are huge. It instils confidence in your team that you genuinely support them, it makes people more accountable, it eases your workload and issues get resolved swiftly.

If you want to learn more tips like these, come and join my Tribe of Trusted Leaders - Leadership Mastermind. I have got a free webinar about it this week called 3 Strategies to Unleash Your Leadership Potential and Foster High-Performing Teams. Register here.

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