If I needed to name one communication challenge that creates lots of harm in organisations, it would be the lack of assertiveness.
As Wikipedia explains: “Assertiveness is the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive. In the field of psychology and psychotherapy, it is a learnable skill and a mode of communication.”
In practice assertiveness means expressing own thoughts and opinions with confidence – also when they deviate from those of the others, BUT, without this happening at cost of overruling someone else.
From the biological point of view, it is not that natural to find – or search for - the balance of being self-assured yet respective of others. We are biochemically programmed to respond with ‘fight or flight’, meaning attacking or escaping, when we experience a threat (e.g. risk of someone getting upset if we don’t agree can be seen as a threat). This attack or escape mode to which our brain is programmed just doesn’t fit very well in today’s workplace. In expert organizations, every person leads their own area of responsibility and needs to contribute actively, as well as survive in matrix webs. For the same reason the hierarchical, top-down management doesn’t work either anymore. Bosses don’t know it all; fortunately they don’t have to!
Therefore, for most of us, assertiveness is a skill to be learned. Some of us are fortunate to be equipped with this skill in their childhood, in a kind of growth environment where parents encourage self-expression and sharing boldly own opinions, but also paying attention to listening others’ opinions and being sensitive to others’ feelings. Not an easy task, but a great gift. And yes, someone should train us parents as well!
Why the lack of assertiveness is such a big problem? These are examples at least I encounter continuously in organisations: person with the loudest voice dominates a meeting. An introvert specialist with a strong in-depth expertise doesn’t get the deserved attention from an extrovert counterpart, and finds it difficult to speak up. A manager struggles with discussing not acceptable behavior with their team member. Time in meetings is used to talk about irrelevant things, but no one speaks up.
Lack of assertiveness causes frustration, poorer quality meetings, poorer quality projects, loosing time, and it weakens wellbeing at work. Fortunately we all can train ourselves in assertiveness, whether our current approach leans towards too passive or too aggressive style. First we just need to recognize that we are missing it and that the lack of may obstacle us from achieving other goals.