Today's American leaders must succeed in a competitive, global and sometimes harsh environment, while maintaining a charming communicative channel to co-workers, partners, clients, creditors, contractors, family and friends. It is not only the college degree that makes these managers master their relationships with important people, but the constant practice and application of communication tools. In America, assertiveness is one of the most valuable traits a good communicator should posses, as it fosters the direct expression of needs and wishes but also emphasizes the respect of others by showing empathy.
How do we define assertiveness and what is the appropriate level one should utilize? Self-expression with respect for ourselves but also for others is the key to being more assertive. Assertiveness is one way to express ourselves, especially in the western world and is part of the complex communication process. Speakers and listeners use it through verbal and non-verbal language. Self-confidence, goal-orientation, efficiency, organized thoughts, appropriate and rich vocabulary, as well as clear speech are they characteristics of assertive speakers in the eyes of western culture. Assertive speakers can take responsibility for their actions. The University of Texas at Austin reports in their Counseling brochure "Standing up for your rights and not being taken advantage of" is part of assertiveness (n.d). Another part of assertiveness is to say 'no' when necessary or admit "I can't answer this question". It is crucial to employ honest, mature and informative communication without being hostile and aggressive. This type of communication causes the other person to react similarly and conflict may arise. Goal is to reach highest fidelity in a conversation (Communication Resarch Associates, 2005).
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However, techniques and strategies for assertiveness are daily procedure for progressive leaders, especially in the business world. The use of "I" language, such as "I would appreciate if you could stay longer today to finish this report" or "I want to have this report by closing of business" is common when speaking assertively. The key is not to sound aggressive or demanding to the other person, which translates in "ways that violate the rights of others "(The University of Texas at Austin, n.d.).
The level of assertiveness is not easy to determine and it depends on the environment and communication partners, e.g. work setting and social life or boss v. client. In two studies of MBA students and senior leaders on assertiveness and leadership, Daniel Ames and Francis Flynn (2007) described that a very high level of assertiveness is not always desirable but contrary a low level of assertiveness wasn't either. The result is actually not surprising. Leaders need to be flexible but cautions of their environment when they use assertiveness, because a low level of assertiveness translates into 'not attaining the goals', while being too assertive translates into 'hurting relationships' (Ames and Flynn, 2007). How often is a manager asked to make decisions ad hoc or even fire people he/she deems valuable? These are situation where good leadership and effective assertiveness training shows. A leader needs to have insight of the business techniques but also have know-how in regards to 'people skills'.
Authors Chang et al. (2001) also noted in their report about leadership in the U.S. and Japan that "we expect charismatic leader behaviours to be highly prominent" and "the high achievement orientation of workers, especially managers and professionals, cause followers to respond well to it" (p.4). In other words, it is desirable for leaders to be ambitious and straight forward. The successful leader is not afraid to take charge and expresses what has to be done. However, in my opinion it is a global understanding that leaders know how to say please and thank you and maintaining healthy relationships, while attaining business goals.
Whereas in America assertiveness is a manager's tool for success, it is not in other countries. In Japan, the work culture is rather passive than assertive and traditions and customs are highly encouraged (Change et al., 2001, p.2). While most Japanese leaders emphasize their membership in the company or family, Americans praise individualism, which is shown in the verbal and non-verbal communication behavior. This might cause some confusion in an international business relationship. Especially when dealing with business partners it is of utmost importance to know the background of the communication partner and to respect his/her traditions. Many business people take training that teaches them how to communicate on international terrain and business manners, which includes learning phrases or customs, e.g. avoiding the usual eye contact when dealing with a particular audience. Eye contact is typical for Americans and Europeans, but not be for Japanese or Korean people.
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The goal of every leader is to be an effective one, which includes "to see the world from a position of win-win" and make compromises when necessary without being taking advantage of (Communication Resarch Associates, 2005, p.193). In a good communication, the sender and receiver are on one page and get the information they need without employing negative emotions or causing distress. Different opinions can be expressed in an assertive way in the western culture but empathy is a desirable trait in every country in regards to communication. For example, if I would need a report done from my employee or co-worker sitting in a different country, I would be assertive while saying "I know that it is already late in XY but I really need this report by 5pm our time. I would appreciate your cooperation and make it up to you that you miss the concert".
Because people have different backgrounds and languages, it is also important to be able to recognize barriers to good communication. Even though one might be trained in the language and customs of the communication partner, the message can still arrive incorrectly. Barriers in a communication include physical hurdles, such as cue sensitivity and mechanical noise, but also psychological obstacles such as shyness, inexperience in regards to communication, preoccupation, lack of interest and different perception of words and non-verbal language (Communication Research Associates, 2005).
Assertiveness has different languages because it is perceived as must-have business tool in Western societies, but perhaps noticed as rude in some Asian countries. In the United States and in many European countries, e.g. Germany, it is common to express our needs and wishes in a direct manner. In other countries, such as Japan, the 'sempai-kohai mentor' is the center of attention, as well as the whole group, rather than the individual. Therefore, we would hear more 'we's' from Asian people than 'I's'. Some cultures are also very touchy and so it occurs that French and Italian people kiss each other when they meet and German and Hawaiian people like to hug. Americans shake hands while Asians bow. In Korea, women are rather submissive and avoid eye contact while they greet you with their arms stretched out and one hand on the other arm.
Assertiveness training is offered to people who want to improve their communication skills, but it will not be a quick fix. Application of the right tools takes time and practice and in addition experience in using the right vocabulary and level of assertiveness at the right time and setting. These behaviors should be internalized for every person because as global citizens and leaders, they are crucial element of our lives. We need these skills to succeed in our jobs and build meaningful relationships with business partners but also social connections that last.
Ames, D.R. & Flynn, F.J. (2007). What breaks a leader: The curvilinear relation between assertiveness and leadership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 92, 307-324.
Communication Research Associates. (2005). Communicate! A workbook for interpersonal communication. Long Beach: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
Kelken, C., Chew, H., Pok Ai Ling, I., Hua, T. &. Koon , Y. (2001, October 28). Leadership in the workplace: Japan and the United States of America. Retrieved January 17, 2010, from http://sps.nus.edu.sg/~pokailin/acad/leader.pdf.
The University of Texas. (n.d.). Learning to be assertive. Retrieved January 12, 2010, from http://cmhc.utexas.edu/booklets/assert/assertive.html.