To manage people, a manager has to be assertive.
But be aware that there’s a strong difference between being assertive and being aggressive, says Judy Belmont, MMF, LPC, a psychotherapist and workplace wellness trainer in Philadelphia.
The assertive manager sets limits and enforces standards. Every manager has to do that. If the rules aren’t enforced, or if there are no limits at all, the office will be a place of havoc.
The aggressive manager, on the other hand, tries to keep order by attacking people. And the aggression does nothing but undermine the manager’s success, because it doesn’t generate good behavior. It only puts people on the defensive.
A quick self-evaluation
Is the manager aggressive or assertive? To do a personal evaluation, step back and look at what staff are hearing.
Aggression is an attack on the person instead of on the behavior, and all it produces is a defensive staffer.
Most often it starts with a sentence that begins with you and continues on with a label, for example, “you are spending so much time being a busybody that you aren’t getting back from lunch on time.”
The outcome: the staffer immediately goes into defense mode.
Stick to the transgression: “it’s not appropriate to take extra time for lunch without permission.”
It’s aggressive too to make a personal remark to a staffer within earshot of other people. For example, the late-luncher is talking with others and the manager says right in front of everybody, “Staffer A, your lunch hour ended 15 minutes ago.”
The outcome: defense mode again.
Defensiveness also crops up when the boss doesn’t listen to what staff are saying.
Many a manager “talks at people, not with them,” Belmont says. And talking at someone shows no respect for that person.
Talking with someone means empathizing with that person and showing concern for how that person sees things. It says “I don’t think you’re stupid for feeling that way.”
Suppose the response from the late luncher is “Staffer B is always late from lunch, but you never say anything about that.” The aggressive manager comes back with “well I’m talking to you now. Staffer B is none of your concern.”
The assertive manager, however, listens and also recognizes the statement with “I understand it can be frustrating to have me tell you to do this when you think I should be talking with Staffer B instead. But if I am talking with Staffer B, I can’t be telling you about it.”
That says the manager recognizes the staffer’s remark. It also says the manager respects everybody’s privacy.
As an aside, Belmont cautions to give a second thought to the validity of the staffer’s remark. When a manager doesn’t enforce the rules consistently, people learn when and how to get away with things.
Putting it to work now
Belmont shows how to be assertive and not aggressive when addressing two common situations – the staffer who is a constant talker and the staffer who dresses inappropriately.
In the first situation – the talker – suppose the talking is severe to the extent that it keeps everybody else from being productive.
Don’t start out with an accusation: “you talk too much.”
Start off instead describing the problem and telling what has to be done about it: “I find that your friendliness and talking is impacting the performance of other people. I’m going to ask you to be more vigilant about talking when you are not on break, because it impacts our work.”
Point out the consequence of not doing so, perhaps “I will have to move your desk.”
If the staffer is especially capable, add something positive to it. Offer to make the job more interesting: “I’ve noticed that you seem to have a lot of time on your hands. Do you need more challenging work?” And then talk about what other duties the staffer might take on.
With that approach, the manager isn’t aggressive or judgmental, and neither is the staffer being labeled “as gabby or inconsiderate.” What’s more, the staffer has just been given an opportunity for professional growth.
A matter of following policy
With the second situation – the inappropriate dresser – the solution is to set limits. Draw up a policy that spells out in detail what is and what isn’t appropriate in the professional setting.
Be specific to a fault. With skirt length, tell how many inches above the knee is acceptable. With necklines, say “there cannot be any cleavage showing.” Then there can be no question of what people can and can’t do.
Along with that, put in disciplinary consequences with the usual “up to and including termination” provision.
And make it a requirement that everybody sign the policy.
Many managers are afraid to set limits, because they don’t want to deal with the complaints, she says. But limits are a necessity. When there are no lines of demarcation, people start pushing the rules to see how far they can go.
The limits of the policy also give the manager a valid business reason to discuss the issue. Without that, it’s easy for a staffer to say “I’m being picked on” or “I’m being discriminated against.” And with the issue of dress, if manager and staffer are not of the same sex, there can even be a claim of sexual harassment.
Also, she says, don’t let things slide. Enforce the policy at every turn. Let a few people get away with even small infractions and expect anger when the policy is enforced. Even worse, “come down on one person but not the others and the office may see a discrimination claim.”
What if staff ask why the policy is being set up? Be assertive, not aggressive: “we have decided on this because there has been some confusion on the proper skirt length.”
What if a staffer starts coming in dressed inappropriately?
Again, assertion, not aggression. Don’t attack the person with “you are dressing too sexy for the office.” The you and the label of sexy only create defensiveness.
Stick to the facts. Make it a professional discussion with the policy at the center: “I am concerned that your skirt length does not meet our standard. The consequences of not complying with the dress code are X and Y.”
Now the manager has avoided both the defensive response as well as “the human drama” that can ensue with personal issues such as dress.
With clothing, Belmont adds, there can also arise the question of whether the office should give extra money to staff to improve their wardrobes. Her answer is no. “That’s coddling people who are pushing the rules in the first place.”
Neither is there any reason to give people a grace period to improve their wardrobes.
Be assertive and follow the policy. The office has laid out what is appropriate, and there’s no reason staff can’t follow the requirements.
The job well done
A final point of good management: an essential part of changing any staffer’s inappropriate behavior is following up with a compliment when the behavior is corrected.
Some people argue that a compliment isn’t in order because the bad behavior shouldn’t have happened to begin with, Belmont says. But good management demands it.
In an employment setting, people need to know where they stand and how their work is being viewed and whether they are doing the right thing.
When they don’t know that, they aren’t secure in their jobs. They don’t fee valued. There’s anxiety. And there’s low morale and turnover.
Hearing “you have improved and I have noticed it” lets the staffer know the job is on solid ground and that the manager appreciates and values the improvement.