Top dog on a tightrope: The delicate art of being perfectly assertive

The best bosses stay in tune with how their words and deeds are construed by their followers – that’s a central theme in my book Good Boss, Bad Boss. But talking about being in tune with others is a lot easier than doing it. There is much about being a human being that makes such perspective-taking difficult, and wielding power over others makes it even harder to do.

One area where self-awareness is particularly hard to gain has to do with one’s level of assertiveness. Bosses often can’t tell when they’re pushing people too hard versus not challenging, questioning, and coaching them intensely enough. As research conducted by Daniel Ames and Frank Flynn suggests (see this pdf), striking the right balance between being too assertive and not assertive enough is essential to being (and being perceived as) a great boss.

Ames and Flynn began with the observation that managers who are too assertive are seen as overbearing and that damages their relationships with others; but managers who are not assertive enough don’t end up achieving much with their teams that they — and their peers and superiors — can take real satisfaction in. So they hypothesized that the best bosses would be rated roughly average on terms like “competitive,” “aggressive,” “passive,” and “submissive” by their direct reports. And that is what they found when they asked 213 MBA students to assess their most recent bosses on various dimensions. There was much overlap between the bosses rated as moderately assertive and the bosses rated most effective overall. The MBAs also deemed those moderately assertive bosses to be most likely to succeed in the future, and to be people they would be happy to work with again.

And what about the bosses these MBA’s judged to be the lousy ones? Ames and Flynn found that lapses in assertiveness (whether by being too assertive or not assertive enough) were mentioned as hallmarks of these weak leaders far more often than deficits in “other commonly studied attributes, including intelligence, conscientiousness, and charisma.”

When I heard about this research, I thought of a quote from Tommy Lasorda, who has worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers for over 50 years, including a 20-year stint as the team’s manager. The first day he took charge of the team, Tommy said to the press: “I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.”

Call it Lasorda’s law: Being just assertive enough, while not easy for any boss, is one of the most important features of a good one. And it isn’t simply a matter of arriving at some correct calibration and then sticking with it. Rather, the best bosses get the balance right on any given day, and in a myriad interactions with their followers, peers, and own bosses. Ames and Flynn emphasize that it isn’t that highly regarded managers are moderately assertive all the time. Rather such bosses have the self-awareness and skill to switch between pushing people hard enough at certain times, and backing off appropriately at other times. Being flexible and socially sensitive — knowing when it’s the right time for either approach — enables them to be seen as motivating and engaged, but not as bullying or micro-managing.

On this point, when I had finished writing much of Good Boss, Bad Boss, I had a conversation with the very talented Marc Hershon about what to title the book. Marc is unusually good at naming things. He’s the branding expert who named the Blackberry and the Swiffer, for example, and has helped authors like Tom Kelley and Dr. Phil come up with titles for bestselling books. Based on the chapters Marc read, and thinking about the bosses he knew, he suggested the title “Top Dog on a Tightrope.” What struck him, in other words, was the constant balancing act required to do the job well. He also thought it was important to emphasize that, while everyone misjudges a step now and then, the best ones fall less often, because they have the skill to make constant and correct adjustments to stay out of trouble.

I love that title and still wonder sometimes if I should have used it. And, to add to the fun, Julia Kirby (who edited the original version of this piece for HBR) found the perfect picture to introduce it (the above picture was originally published in the Korea Times and HBR used it when the earlier version of this piece first appeared; both the picture and readers’ comments disappeared when they updated their website).

I couldn’t resist using it again here on LinkedIn. A lot of leaders I know feel just like that dog — striking the right balance isn’t easy.

I suspect some of your bosses come across as overbearing jerks. And I suspect that others come across as wimps and doormats. What signals should they look for that the time has come to push harder? Or to back-off?

And many LinkedIn readers are experienced leaders: If you are one, what advice would you have for a new boss — or an insensitive veteran — about how to hone this skill?

This is edited and updated version of a post that I first wrote for Harvard Business Review, as part of series on 12 Things Good Bosses Believe.

Bob Sutton is a Stanford Professor who studies and writes about leadership, organizational change, and navigating organizational life. Follow me on Twitter @work_matters, and visit my website and posts on LinkedIn. My latest book is The A–hole Survival Guide: How To Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt. Before that, I published Scaling Up Excellence with Huggy Rao. My main focus these days is on working with Huggy Rao to develop strategies and tools that help leaders and teams change their organizations for the better — with a particular focus on organizational friction. Check out my Stanford “FRICTION Podcast” at iTunes or Sticher.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.