Walking the line between being strong and being forceful can be a regular challenge for today’s executives.
There are times when business leaders need to draw on both skills to be effective decision-makers, but leaning too far toward forcefulness can utterly derail the best-laid plans of any company and have a significant impact to the bottom-line. Forceful leaders tend to be resented, while true leaders inspire their workforce to take action with a positive mindset, even when times are tough. By implementing the tools of positive psychology, being emotionally intelligent and mindfully assertive, a smart business leader can balance between being a steamroller and being rolled over.
A negative, tyrannical work environment full of force can take a tremendous financial and personal toll. Back in 2013, Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, professors at Georgetown and Arizona State, conducted a study that showed that a toxic work environment – including incivility, rudeness, micromanagement and forceful leadership – had a significant impact on a business’s bottom line. Nearly half of employees studied decreased their work effort and spent less time at work, and almost 38 percent of the employees intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
The study also revealed that some employees even took their frustrations out on customers, and 12 percent eventually left their toxic jobs. All of that translates into big problems for business leaders and for profitability in the long run. Being a forceful leader can have a significant negative impact on your business, your employees and your bottom line.
Being assertive means proactively listening and communicating clearly with employees and other company leaders to give instruction, correction and direction. It does not mean demanding outrageous things. A leader who says, "In order to hit next quarter’s revenue targets, we need to reinvigorate this business and this is how we are going to do it" inspires confidence with clear direction and goal-setting.
One who demands that employees execute a plan simply because he or she says so tends to engender resistance. An assertive leader leaves no doubt in the minds of employees and inspires people to pull together to achieve sometimes-difficult goals. Today, forceful leaders get resented, while true leaders head the march.
If a business leader takes this lesson to heart and strives to create a positive environment where people can thrive, that environment will translate to great success for the company and individual employees. So, how should business leaders implement this in the workplace? Emphasize strengths over weaknesses, focus on ways to improve the overall well-being of employees and help foster a space that allows for creativity, communication and growth. Taking these steps will ensure that smart leaders avoid the toxicity trap.
But how does a successful leader walk this tightrope between being assertive but not being forceful? Research shows that leveraging the tools of positive psychology can help motivate employees to strive for bigger goals and make a company more successful. Barbara Fredrickson is a psychologist and principal researcher at the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research has shown that "people who experience more positive emotions than negative ones are more likely to see the bigger picture, build relationships and thrive in their work and career, whereas people who experience mostly negative emotions are more likely to have a narrower perspective and tend to focus more on problems." That means that when a skilled leader creates an environment of positivity, employees are more likely to want to work harder and longer and be more dedicated to the company.
Utilizing the tools of positive psychology means that leaders need to work hard to develop their own emotional intelligence, a term that gets thrown around a lot in today’s workplace. The concept of emotional intelligence dates back to the 1950s when psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman published a book arguing that the chances of success in life and work center around the ability to understand and manage emotions as they arise in both ourselves and those around us.
Goleman argues that emotional intelligence matters more than IQ in determining our success. To that end, business leaders must have a high emotional quotient (EQ) and strive to constantly improve their emotional intelligence to help foster a positive work environment. Being emotionally intelligent and fostering a positive work environment may seem to advocate for weak leadership and a lack of assertiveness when, in fact, it means just the opposite. By leveraging and nourishing workplace relationships and encouraging open communication, a leader can gain consensus and decisively move things forward. This doesn’t equate to a lack of assertiveness. Rather, it is a new and innovative way to be assertive without being forceful.
The first step in figuring out that balance is, as Socrates would say, to "know thyself." Business leaders must be aware of how they perform under pressure, how they react to challenges and how they tend to communicate before they can begin to seek out a balance.
To that end, business leaders must strive to be peacekeepers more than tyrants. Rather than telling employees "my way or the highway," skilled leaders should approach a challenge with an open mind, a good set of listening skills and high emotional intelligence. When a challenge presents itself, a skilled leader should consider how best to present a reasonable and fair solution rather than demanding something outrageous. This approach demonstrates a model that employees can use in their own conflict resolution and continues to reinforce a positive work environment. It becomes a win-win situation for all parties.
Business leaders must navigate between head and heart to find the right balance of being assertive but not forceful. In today’s competitive corporate environment, there is far too much to lose by being pushy and autocratic – and it’s not just limited to profits and people. The physical and emotional toll that kind of leadership can take is very high. By using the tools of positive psychology, leveraging emotional intelligence and aiming to be a peacekeeper rather than a tyrant, business leaders can be sure that their leadership style is strong but not forceful.