Sherrie Haynie is the director of professional services for CPP, Inc., in Sunnyvale, California.
Assertiveness is both valued and lamented in contemporary business culture. Whether assertiveness is a vice or virtue, it can be used as a highly calculated tool for specific situations.
For association executives, assertiveness can play a two-faced role. As an organizational attitude, it can be alienating to members, but the skill can also be invaluable for advocating on behalf of members and one’s industry. Immediately we can see that assertiveness’s value is highly situational.
On an individual level, association executives must understand when assertiveness can help to problem solve and work through conflicts rather than simply makes things worse.
Psychological models provide frameworks for understanding what is going on underneath the surface when interpersonal issues arise for an association leader.
For example, The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, which was created by behavioral scientists Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann in 1974, provides a framework to learn how assertiveness rears its ugly head in organizational settings.
TKI defines conflict modes, or ways of handling conflict, along two scales: cooperativeness (working to meet the needs of others) and assertiveness (working to meet one’s own needs).
This model shows us that assertiveness versus cooperativeness is not a zero-sum game. In fact, some of the most effective approaches to conflict are found where the two forces meet—compromise and collaboration.
The key to this model is the reality that each conflict-driven situation or problem deserves a unique blend of assertiveness and cooperativeness to be handled effectively.
Assertiveness versus cooperativeness is not a zero-sum game. In fact, some of the most effective approaches to conflict are found where the two forces meet—compromise and collaboration.
However, conflicts don’t always play out nicely. To truly understand and use assertiveness in practice, it first helps to know how you’re wired for conflict and how you can step outside your comfort zone.
Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, the creators of TKI, found that individuals and organizations tend to gravitate toward defaults when handling conflict. This single-focused mindset robs them of the richness of a varied toolbox of responses, and it often leaves the individual with the wrong tool for the job.
It’s akin to driving in a screw with a hammer when individuals gravitate toward conflict with a single tool, whether it’s the right one for the job or not.
Imagine you’re the leader of a trade association and find yourself caught up in an ethics scandal that you’re convinced is unjustified, or at least blown out of proportion. What conflict approach do you take?
There’s no right answer but imagine how your members might feel if you publicly avoided the issue or were overly accommodating to critics. The right course of action might seem obvious in the abstract, but in real-life situations, particularly high-stakes ones, leaders can be hesitant to go outside their comfort zone to consider possible reactions. But going outside of this comfort zone is often what is called for by the situation and developing the ability to do this takes careful practice and reflection.
The first step to applying the right level of assertiveness is to simply be aware that there are no one-size-fits-all approaches to conflict.
It helps to know your default reaction. To do this, reflect and identify the tool that you would normally reach for out of habit. No matter what that tool is, if your approach to problems is autopiloted, you’re going to find yourself hammering at a screw, which is neither productive nor beneficial for your association.
This gut reaction is likely where most of the negative characterizations of assertiveness can come from in the first place.
When used indiscriminately or in the wrong situation, assertiveness can look particularly ugly. However, when reflected upon and reached for under the right circumstances, with thought, care, and intention, it can prove to be graceful and effective.