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NEW SUPERVISORS & MANAGERS: Building Assertiveness Skills Part I

If you are like many new supervisors, you got promoted because of your job knowledge and technical ability. While some of you may have been recognized for your communication skills, others may find that your promotion requires a whole new level of expertise. Just recently, one new supervisor asked me quite openly, “Based on all your experience coaching supervisors and managers, what would you say is the one most important skill to possess?” Wanting to give my best answer, I thought about it for a few minutes, and then said, “Interpersonal communication skills.” I shared that out of all the statistics I’ve used in trainings, the message of this AMA quote has always remained with me: “90% of managers are fired, not because of their lack of technical competency or job knowledge, but for their lack of interpersonal skills.”

Much of a supervisor’s success hinges on the ability to address employee and customer issues verbally, assert at times a contrary viewpoint in meetings and “communicate up” effectively to understand his/her manager’s expectations and gain feedback. If a new supervisor shies away from communication or communicates poorly, it can derail the once-hoped-for success and career path. Additionally, a supervisor is also expected to be able to role model the kind of communication that he or she expects from others.

What exactly do we mean by communication? Essentially, there are two basic elements: listening and speaking.  In particular, we use facial expressions, gestures, body language, proximity, tone of voice and words to communicate. In fact, over ninety percent of the message received by others comes from our body language and tone of voice, not our words. Skeptical? Just try saying, “I am not angry! I am very happy right now,” with an irate tone of voice, and see if anyone believes you. I bet not. Not even your dog.

Though listening is critically important, I wanted to focus today on assertiveness. By definition, it represents a way of thinking and behaving that allows a person to stand up for his or her rights while respecting the rights of others. Instead of shutting down communication, assertiveness encourages it, and promotes problem solving and agreement. Can you see how this would be a powerful skill for a supervisor? This type of communication builds relationships with staff, increases trust and encourages continuous improvement.

As Sharon Anthony Bower and Gordon Bower suggest in their book, Asserting Yourself: A Practical Guide for Positive Change, the first step lies in understanding what it really means to be assertive, and then, taking a fearless inventory of your own behavior and beliefs.

Assertiveness rests in some key foundational beliefs about yourself and others. I encourage you to take sufficient time as you read down through this list and, ask yourself honestly: (1) do I really believe these things to be true? and (2) am I committed to do the behaviors that support these values?

1.   I accept each person as he or she is. We all have a right to be treated with respect.

2.   I can never change another person.

3.   I accept that each person communicates differently based on his or her values, background and environment. I have a right to express my feelings and to disagree and express my opinions and so does the other person.

4.   I accept responsibility for myself and not for others and can say “no” without feeling guilty.

5.   I am responsible only for my side of the relationship, expressing my needs and wants clearly.

6.   I accept that every person may choose to be assertive, passive, or aggressive depending on the situation.

7.   I have a choice of being assertive, passive or aggressive depending on the situation. In some cases, it may be better to choose to be non-assertive.

8.   I will practice being assertive and being sensitive to the feelings of others.

9.   I have the right to change my mind and to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.”

10. I have the right to make mistakes and be responsible for them.

Assertiveness is all about developing a voice that is uniquely your own – one that reflects your deepest convictions and values. It is a means to express yourself, and also allows others to do the same – both with respect. It encourages reciprocity and balance.

The first step is desire and a personal commitment to the belief system that supports assertiveness. The second step is reflecting on your current communication patterns and determining how assertive you are today. Download our Assertiveness Self-Assessment to help you get started. In Part II, we’ll contrast the difference between passive, passive-aggressive, aggressive and assertive communication and give you the methods and tools to model it as a supervisor.

Another favorite statistic of mine is this one: 80% of the battle is awareness. So, I encourage you to learn from those around you. Watching others and how they communicate can give you insight into what works and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to ask trusted others for feedback to help you become more self-aware, and provide the information needed for a true baseline for development. No matter where you are, assertiveness is a learned skill – and with practice and tools, we can all get better at it.


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