Assertiveness in 5 Words

February 20, 2024

This is the first article in a new series that will address a major challenge in creating a positive workplace culture.

The problem has many faces. It masquerades in different forms.

From executives, I hear it put this way: “How can I teach more effective leadership skills to management staff?”

From managers, I hear, “How do I get my employees to take their jobs more seriously?”

From frontline workers, I hear, “My manager is never happy regardless of what I do.”

Sometimes it’s couched in terms of generational differences: “I just don’t know how to relate to millennials.”

Other times it’s sugar-coated in diplomacy: “We’re looking for ways to increase commitment and teamwork.”

Still other times it’s straight up resentful. (No examples necessary.)

It’s time to cut through the noise.

This age-old struggle is not really about performance or commitment or generational differences. And it doesn’t need to be a turf war between management and frontline workers. It’s about assertiveness, and it’s one of the most important components of Emotional Capital (discussed previously here). Get this part right and your office culture will thrive. Get it wrong and you can count on record turnover.

Assertiveness is a balance between the two extremes of passiveness on one hand and aggression on the other. I’m sure you can think of people who fit the bill for both extremes.

The passive manager avoids providing regular feedback only to dish out zingers on performance reviews. Or maybe they are friendly to someone’s face but criticize them behind their back.

The aggressive manager may appear polite in their speech only to micromanage every task. Or maybe they jettison manners altogether and lead with brute force and drill sergeant tactics.

Both approaches are poison to culture and are woefully common.

Those who occupy the middle ground, however, are a rare breed. They are the modern-day magicians who can transform lead into gold. It’s both a science and an art. If you’ve ever seen it in action, you know how mesmerizing it can be.

An assertive manager has a relational bedrock with staff. They have a reputation for regular, non-catastrophizing feedback and almost never miss an opportunity to offer praise. (Keep an eye out for the next article where I explain why you should ditch the traditional “compliment sandwich” and what you should do instead.)

Regular feedback, both positive and negative, with critical feedback delivered directly without avoidance and without over-embellishing mistakes. It’s a simple formula, but it can be challenging to execute.

There’s no one right way to go about it. Styles differ. Contexts change. What works for one person may not work for another. There is, however, a simple tool that helps most people at least get in the right ballpark.

It’s five simple words:

“That’s not quite good enough.”

Each word carries weight. “That” instead of “you” keeps the focus on external behaviors instead of making feedback a personal attack. “Not quite” is an indicator of proximity - an implied promise that your employees are zeroing in on success and not just running on a hamster wheel. “Good enough” is probably the most powerful phrase in the sentence. It is the antidote for perfectionism. It communicates that completion involves crossing a threshold, not achieving nirvana.

No hemming and hawing. No false praise. No beating around the bush. Just a simple 5-word phrase. If you struggle giving direct feedback, practice saying it in the mirror. If you train managers, have them practice saying it to you.

This approach, of course, requires clear and concise follow-up about what does constitute “good enough.” And it must be done with the aforementioned pre-requisites in place. But if executed well, it can gain the respect and compliance of even the most entitled worker.

There is magic in simplicity.

Give it a try, and see how people respond.


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