Here is an excerpt from an article written by Robert I. Sutton for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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Recently, I posted a list of 12 Things Good Bosses Believe [Click here.]. Now I’m following up by delving into each one of them. This post is about the fourth belief: “One of the most important, and most difficult, parts of my job is to strike the delicate balance between being too assertive and not assertive enough.”
The upshot of my earlier post called Some Bosses Live in a Fool’s Paradise [click here] is that the best bosses stay in tune with how their words and deeds are construed by their followers, but there is a lot about being a human being and wielding power over others that makes such perspective-taking difficult.
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 them sufficiently. But as research conducted at Columbia University by Daniel Ames and Frank Flynn suggests, striking the right balance between being too assertive and not assertive enough is immensely important 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. With this in mind, they hypothesized that the best bosses would be rated roughly average on terms like “competitive,” “aggressive,” “passive,” and “submissive” by their direct reports. Indeed, this is what they found when they asked 213 MBA students to assess their most recent bosses on various dimensions. There was tremendous 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 of the bosses judged to be ineffective overall? 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 couldn’t help but think of a quote from Tommy Lasorda, who has worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers for almost 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.”
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To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
Robert I. Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He studies and writes about management, innovation, and the nitty-gritty of organizational life. He is the coauthor with Jeffrey Pfeffer of The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. His last book was The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. His next book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst by Robert I. Sutton will be published by Business Plus/Hatchette Book Group in September (2010).
Recently, book publishers got some good news. Researchers gave 852 disadvantaged students 12 books (of their own choosing) to take home at the end of the school year. They did this for three successive years.
Then the researchers, led by Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, looked at those students’ test scores. They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students.
…just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school.
This study, along with many others, illustrates the tremendous power of books. We already knew, from research in 27 countries, that kids who grow up in a home with 500 books stay in school longer and do better. This new study suggests that introducing books into homes that may not have them also produces significant educational gains.
These are the opening sentences of David Brooks’ column in today’s New York Times, The Medium Is the Medium. I don’t often quote as extensively as I am quoting in this post from one person’s work. But this column is really valuable to those of us who have a deep love of learning, the kind of learning that comes from reading books of substance. And, yes, I recognize the irony – I read this column as I glanced through my usual web sites for the day. So, here’s more of the column (I encourage you to read the entire column – it is worth the time!):
But there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.
…sometimes the medium is just the medium.
What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.
A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.
A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference.
…the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.
Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.
It’s better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.
Perhaps that will change. Already, more “old-fashioned” outposts are opening up across the Web. It could be that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning.
Just yestereday, I quoted this line without comment: reading the right books is more important than merely reading books. I now add a comment.
Though I think reading the right book is more important than merely reading just any book, a reader has to start somewhere to develop a love of books and a deeper love of learning. Letting a student choose 12 books for the summer (to state the obvious, one book to read each week) may be exactly the right place to start.
Coming for the August First Friday Book Synopsis – the new Wellbeing, and a business book classic, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits
We had a wonderful gathering of book lovers and serious learners at the First Friday Book Synopsis this morning – a surprisingly good attendance for a 2nd Friday of July morning.
Next month, Karl Krayer will present a synopsis of the new, important book, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements by Tom Rath, Ph.D. and James K. Harter (Gallup Press, 2010). (You can read Bob Morris’ review of this book on our blog book here).
I will present a synopsis of the business book classic, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits: What You Must Do to Increase the Value of Your Growing Firm, by Verne Harnish (Select Books, 2002). This is a rare choice for us, to present a book that has been around a while. We have only done this a couple of times. The first business book classic we presented was Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf. There are a few books that stand the test of time so well – books that either came out before we began the First Friday Book Synopsis in April 1998, or, a book we just happened to miss. Such selections are ones that we feel that we need to include for the value they bring. So, for August, I will present this immensely practical book by Verne Harnish. (You can read Bob Morris’ review of this book on our blog here).
Mark your calendars now, and plan to join us on the first Friday of August, August 6.
In Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business published by Portfolio/Penguin Group (2010), Nancy Lublin explains how to “attract more bees with h0ney than with a clenched fist” by asking smarter questions. Try it. Ask yourself these five of the 11 she poses on Pages 91-92:
1. Before you ask someone for something, do you think about why that person might say yes or no?
2. Do you plan before you ask? Or do you wing it? Do you just go through the motions of the old routine?
3. Are you so friendly that it’s easy to say no to you? Are you so friendly that you aren’t taken seriously? Or conversely, are you so cold that nobody wants to do you a favor?
4. Do your requests for help or money (or both) have clear deadlines and expectations?
5. When was the last time you told someone thank you without being prompted?
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My Take: Most people tend to be much more willing to help – and be more helpful to – those they respect, admire, and trust as well as like.
Zilch is a brilliant book. I also highly recommend:
Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality, Scott Belsky
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip Heath and Dan Heath
168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, Laura Vanderkam