“Sometimes assertiveness isn’t enough. Sometimes you need to be aggressive.”
It was our first day of class in the happiness elective and we were midway through a discussion on personality when we somehow found ourselves deep in a discussion on interpersonal behavior. We had hit the “A” of agreeableness in the big five personality trait and were discussing how agreeableness, like most traits, has both advantages and disadvantages.
Wikipedia describes agreeableness as a spectrum raging from “friendly/compassionate” to “challenging/detached.” This means that individuals high in agreeableness help create a smoother working environment, likely with very low levels of conflict.
On the flipside, research shows that successful entrepreneurs are much more likely to be low in agreeability. Further, many individuals who score high in agreeability have very low tolerance for conflict and instead of learning how to manage conflict end up avoiding conflict.
And that, of course, is the heart of the challenge. Human and social capital is one of the most valuable sources of competitive advantage, one that is tough to build and tough to imitate. However, in today’s fast-changing world, innovation is essential. An organization workplace where friendliness and compassion outweigh the drive for competitiveness will eventually fail.
At its simplest, agreeableness first rears its head during feedback sessions. There is, of course, the question of content, context and delivery. Even positive feedback can be received negatively if provided within the wrong context. For example, think about receiving glowing feedback from a superior who habitually overpraises everyone. Or think about consistently receiving praises in public but receiving a mediocre formal appraisal and an undifferentiated increase. That is the issue of context. Delivery can also be challenging, especially in a multi-cultural environment. What is polite in one country can be perceived as rude in others. For example, smiling at strangers is considered rude in some countries.
Even the advice of seeking to be assertive rather than aggressive can be confusing. Often, the difference is a matter of boundaries. Assertion is explained as being able to state your opinion while remaining respectful of others. This, of course, continues to beg the question of delivery.
All of this fails to capture the essence of the question. What is the objective? For example, the purpose of feedback is often either to reshape a team plan or to reshape behavior. As far as I am concerned, in the workplace, “I just wanted to voice my opinion” is not enough of an objective. Why are you trying to voice your opinion? Do you want to point out a factor that has gone unconsidered? Has someone overstepped a line?
So to the question of agreeableness, assertiveness, or aggressiveness, I pose a one-word substitution: effectiveness. Good managers shape their behavior in order to achieve a desired outcome.
In the happiness elective, we often contrast two words: happy and successful. For young people still immersed in building careers, success can often represent primarily success in work. But there are many aspects of success. For example, one can be successful professionally but not financially. These levels of success are mirrored in what we can think of as satisfaction.
When we talk about happiness, we are talking not just of one thing. Happiness, satisfaction, or structural well-being has multiple aspects: romantic, social, professional, financial, health, community and even spiritual. The key to gaining satisfaction is not achieving balance. Much like business strategy, the key to personal happiness lies in choices. No company can be everything to everyone. It must make choices. One of my students explained that no human being can be firing all burners at full blast all the time.
In business, choices must be made because no business has unlimited resources. This is even more so for individuals. While businesses can be renewed multiple times and even outlive its founders, human beings deal with a finite lifetime.
Once our children are grown, we can never have their childhood years back. Once our parents are gone, no resource can give us time with them again. Capital can be borrowed but every day that passes is gone forever.
Effectiveness, a clear focus on objectives, has been shown to be an important explanatory factor for individuals who are multiply successful —financially, professionally, and in personal life. At its heart, effectiveness means using personal time and effort only for pursuing goals that are important. This is no small feat. So much of even adult behavior is rooted in emotions, and until we manage our mindset so that our emotions don’t sabotage our own goals, we continue to have pockets of ineffectiveness. That moment when you decided to give a co-worker “a piece of your mind?” Time wasted. That moment when you lost valuable time pursuing that rude driver who cut in front of you? Not only time wasted, but also dangerous behavior.
The key, as it turns out, lies in goals. Goals, dreams, visions. They create anchors into the future. They keep us rooted in what we want to achieve.
In the question of assertiveness versus aggressiveness, the questions tend to be simple. What is your intent? Is it, over the long-term, good for the other person? If not, is there an affirmative justification for what you are doing?
In many cases negative feedback is delivered for the good of the other person as well as for the good of the organization. The key is to deliver it in a manner that achieves the goal.
There are other things to aid in delivery, of course - skills, policies, process. But a clear focus on goals and effectiveness is step one.
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