We’ve seen significant shifts in the way we work over the past few years. With the rapid pace of change and remote work locations now the norm, effective collaboration and ways of communicating have also inherently changed. For leaders, today’s hybrid environment calls for intentional changes to communication styles.
In today’s working world, leaders’ communication skills matter more than ever to support a productive hybrid work environment in this era of disruptive change.
Leaders who can communicate clearly and assertively will be more effective.
Assertive communication helps leaders build trust and influence to achieve outcomes. When leaders can express their ideas, thoughts and feelings to their teams in a clear, direct and respectful manner — that’s assertive communication. This style of communication minimises conflict and builds strong working relationships.
As Brene Brown quotes in her number one New York Times bestseller, ‘Dare to Lead’, “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.”
Brene believes we need brave leaders who can lead more authentically, leaders who can have tough conversations and give honest, productive feedback.
And building assertive communication skills is where we start.
The definition of assertive communication
Assertiveness shouldn’t be confused with being arrogant bossy or pushy. It’s quite the opposite. You can still be curious, empathetic and seek understanding on differing perspectives while being assertive.In 1995, Psychologist Edmund J. Bourne defined five types of communication styles. These include:
He suggests that assertive communication is the most healthy and effective communication style you can adopt.
When discussing leaders’ communication styles, Kate Kesby, founder and CEO of Wyda, says, “Some leaders who may be more passive are putting their sense of comfort over their willingness to pursue the common goal.” She continues, “To be more assertive, you have to have the courage to be willing to move ahead. If you are working towards a purpose or a common goal that you are driving to achieve, you have that responsibility to speak up but also be open to listening. It’s a balance of self-interest and the common purpose.”
What does assertive communication look like?
Assertive communicators regard their own and other people’s needs and rights equally. They speak calmly, clearly and confidently, with no hidden agenda. And they are not afraid to speak up for their rights.
Communicating assertively helps leaders to:
- Set boundaries when they need to
- Have difficult conversations with their people
- Express their feelings and points of view in work groups
- Delegate effectively
- Confidently say no
William Ury from Harvard University discusses the power of a ‘positive no’. He says that as a leader, learning to say no is critical to getting to the right yes.
Get it right and the benefits of assertive communication can be powerful. You’ll see high levels of employee engagement, transparency and trust and strong, authentic team and stakeholder relationships. Thankfully, you’ll also see less burnout and stress. Ultimately, this leads to better outcomes and strategic goal achievement.
How to communicate assertively at work
It’s everyone’s right to be heard and treated fairly at work. From an emerging leader to a CEO, developing assertive communication skills will enable you to express yourself more confidently and clearly and ensure your rights are respected and honoured.
Sometimes this means saying no. This applies to both leaders and employees. Letting people know how you feel and what you need in order to do your best work allows people to adjust their behaviours to meet those needs. Dinesh Mohan, senior product leader at Wyda, recommends the concept of a ‘Positive No’, documented by the author William Ury. “It’s an effective and assertive way to say a respectful ‘No’. It’s similar to a three part approach – sharing a positive priority or focus then delivering neutral communication to say no, while wrapping it up with a constructive positive proposal as an alternative to help the requester also get what they’re needing,” says Dinesh.
An assertive leader is responsible for honesty and transparency with their team. They own their mistakes and don’t shy away from delivering productive feedback when needed. Expressing yourself clearly and respectfully ensures the message is received well. This builds trust and reduces frustrations when conflicts arise.
As we know, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to communication. And, as a leader, flexibility is critical when adapting your assertive communication style to your employees.
Kate says, “Good communication means you meet the listener where they are and adapt your approach.” She goes on to say, “If I want to communicate effectively, I’ve got to think about who the listener is. In an executive context, a room could be full of different styles. How do we use the available mediums to make sure that they’ll listen and that the message resonates with each of them? It’s like telling the story in different ways.” For example, differing communication styles can see a need for alternative approaches such as adequate time to prepare prior to a meeting, or having a whiteboard to be able to ideate. More data-driven communicators will want to analyse facts.
The role of strategic storytelling
Dinesh Mohan, senior product leader at Wyda elaborates on Kate’s strategy of storytelling and its powerful influence on decision-making.
According to Dinesh, there are five steps to strategic storytelling:
- Understand your own communication style and learn the communication styles of the stakeholders you’re communicating with. Consider reviewing DiSC to take a deep-dive
- Identify a shared purpose among you all
- Adjust your communication style to best align to your stakeholders and your shared purpose
- Start by being authentic and sharing something personal or vulnerable
- Then, take your stakeholders on a journey toward achieving the shared purpose
What factors influence whether someone’s assertive communication preferences?
Over the past 50 years, researchers and communication scholars have spent a great deal of effort in analysing the many predictors of an employee’s communication style and behaviour.
In 1976, Bower and Bower, both cognitive psychologists, linked assertiveness to communication competence and investigated the relationship between assertive communication and the accomplishments of goals.
A study in 1988 by LePine and Van Dyne, also psychologists, found that self-esteem played an important role and is a predictor of communication behaviours. Their research suggested that people with higher self-esteem are more likely to communicate up the line and raise issues with superiors. Research has also shown a significant relationship between personality and communication. The results suggest that introverted people tend to be less assertive than extroverted people.
Interestingly, researchers have also recently explored cultural differences in the perceived rules about assertive communication. They’ve determined how culture teaches us what to expect from others and what kind of communication is appropriate and effective.
Another factor that can influence someone’s willingness to communicate more assertively in a team environment is fear of disapproval. In a team, it’s the leader’s responsibility to build a psychologically safe environment where employees feel they can openly contribute and share without fear of judgment. Actively inviting feedback, promoting open discussion and showing value for the ideas of others are some strategies to create a safer work environment.
Regardless of your cultural background, self-esteem or current work environment, everyone can learn to communicate more assertively. Start by saying ‘No’ with respect and practicing strategic storytelling, then build on those skills with more in-depth business acumen training.
Learn how to lead more assertively
According to Dr Em Griffin, author of ‘The First Look at Communication Theory’, assertive communication can be learned. Studies have demonstrated that most people naturally lean toward communicating aggressively or submissively.
Building assertive communication skills is your starting point if you want to become an influential and resilient leader in today’s working world. And given the future of work, Kate says that good leadership is essential, even as more and more becomes automated. “As assertive leaders, we’re championing the human side of work — not just in response to what has been but in response to what we think is coming.”
Assertive communication is just one of the skills that Wyda’s virtual game-based platform helps you build within its safe simulated environment. Check out the demo to learn more.