21/08/2015

By Laura Haycock, Business Physiologist, Pearn Kandola


Being effective in business can involve walking a tightrope between being too polite, and being too pushy. Nobody wants to be seen as aggressive but they don’t want to be a walkover either. So how can we navigate this challenge in the workplace and get the right balance between polite and pushy?

Politeness and the values of fair play and consideration are considered key elements of what makes Britain great. We teach our children to stand back and allow others to go first, to give people the benefit of the doubt and to express ourselves quietly and modestly. Our view of politeness is associated with not acting in a selfish or over-domineering style. While people who are pushy are often perceived as being rude and arrogant. Straying too far in either direction can disrupt productivity and negatively impact on the business.

So what does this mean for UK business leaders? Often there is a tendency to act in a way that is too passive or “soft” for fear of upsetting anyone. People are regularly promoted for their ability to be polite and nice, but this can become a trap. It means when an individual finds themselves in a more senior position and having to manage others, they can often struggle to make difficult decisions or feel inhibited and guilty about giving orders. At worst they can fail to challenge others on unacceptable behaviours which negatively effects the business.

Research by online expenses management provider webexpenses reveals that two-thirds of UK managers have difficulty being assertive even though more than three-quarters believe that excessive politeness impacts their business. Everyday issues that managers typically avoid tackling out of politeness includes: poor time-keeping and unjustified absence from work; theft or fraudulent expense claims; bad behaviour; and poor performance. Whilst not life-threatening for most businesses, repeated avoidance of such issues can lead to an escalating problem which can cost businesses money and time.

However, in recent years, and at the other end of the scale, we have seen the impact that workers politely staying quiet can have in a number of scandals within the financial industry. Including the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, which is widely considered the catalyst of the financial crisis was in part due to people internally not wanting to speak out against risky business behaviours. Such behaviour was allowed to go unchecked and ultimately resulted in whole banks collapsing and sending economic shock waves around the world.

Being assertive isn’t an open invitation for leaders to become mini-dictators. If managers go too far and act in a way that is aggressive or rude, this can be equally counter-productive. Research at the University of Columbia (Ames, 2009) shows that the relationship between assertiveness and performance follows an inverted-U. As assertiveness increases so does perceived success as a leader up to a peak point where its positive relationship with performance begins tail off. Pushy people get what they want up to a point but then there is a social trade-off that starts to get in the way. More assertive people are perceived as less likeable (Kelly et al, 1982) and this can lead colleagues to be less cooperative with them (Falbe & Yukl, 1992) and create more conflict (Bono, Boles, Judge, & Lauver, 2002).

The optimum middle point will fall in different places depending on your culture. In countries such as in Russia, with a high power-distance (the distance between leaders and their workforce) and high uncertainty-avoidant culture (Hofstede, 1980), leaders are expected to give clear unequivocal orders and be more hierarchical, so the optimum point falls at a higher level. However, in Britain, we have a stronger preference to be consulted, and to explore different options.

That doesn’t mean UK leaders should always dampen down their assertiveness in every situation. The challenge for UK managers is finding when it’s right to challenge others and when it’s best to give way.

Under time pressure, a leader may need to give quick straightforward orders and be “bossy”. However, on another day, in order to empower and motivate the team they might collectively brainstorm a new solution to a problem (Vroom and Jago, 2007). Most situations, call for a combination of both approaches: being both clear and firm whilst being polite. If, for example, there is an apparent anomaly on someone’s expense claim, it would be right to raise the issue and clarify the company’s rules and expectations but without using anger or blame and assuming is was a deliberate act.

A difficulty in getting the right balance of “politeness” or “pushiness” is that we each have our own personalities. Some of us are naturally more dominant and controlling and are others more agreeable or more emotionally sensitive. Whatever our natural default style, we all need to learn how to flex assertive behaviours in the right way and at the right time to find that optimum middle ground.

For business leaders and managers looking to flex more assertive behaviours, I recommend the following tips:

1. Quick: act before a problem escalates or it becomes embedded and let others see you dealing with problems regularly and immediately.

2. Clear: ensure your expectations are unambiguous. As leader it is your responsibility to communicate the company’s goals and values.

3. Consistent: have shared rules and apply them to all. This avoids conflict and dissatisfaction in the team.

4. Continued: if the problem persists then restate the message. People may not readily change. Don’t use this as an excuse to give up.

5. Consequences: celebrate success but also be prepared to take action if others cannot or will not do what is required for the business.

But be sure to balance the above with a polite human touch:

6. Calm: manage your own emotions to avoid expressing unhelpful anger and blame. You may need to wait until initial frustrations subside.

7. Considerate: ask questions to understand others’ feelings and point of view so that they feel valued.

8. Compromise: accommodate the needs of others where this does not undermine your goal, to develop trust and loyalty.

9. Collaborate: ask the other person to propose a solution to empower them and share ownership of the problem.

10. Care: offer tools and training to show that however tough your demands, you’re on the same side and will provide support. Tools such as webexpenses are a good example of this. They show that, as a business, you are actively trying to make life simpler and easier for employees.

Achieving the right mix of pushiness and politeness can be difficult to achieve but once mastered, it can reap huge benefits.