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10 Ways to Become More Assertive (Without Becoming a Jerk)

written by: Stephen Newman • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 8/14/2011

Experienced project managers know that to be a good leader one must be assertive. But it's easy to take this a bit too far and come off as a jerk to those who you're working with. Making sure you're being assertive in a professional manner will help you maintain both leadership and respect.

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    1. Communicating Instructions Assertively

    Assertive Communication 

    The first lesson in learning how to become assertive is by starting out on the right foot. Avoid any tension with the people you're managing to make sure everyone knows exactly what their job is right from the off. It's easy to assume someone understands a task simply because you (as a project manager) have such a good understanding of it -- this can lead to problems. Be assertive from the beginning and make sure everyone knows the direction you are headed, then they won't get out of hand along the line.

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    2. Identifying Problems Early on to Minimize their Negative Impact

    An assertive project manager will make it clear to those working under them when a task is veering off course. By identifying potential problems early on, you can give advice and guidance to a team member rather than waiting until the end and telling them to 'start over'. Remember too that there is a big difference between assertiveness and aggression. If you leave a task to go down the tubes you are more likely to come off aggressive or 'jerky' as your frustration will have built up, but if you are firm but fair in the beginning, this is assertive behavior.

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    3. Giving Advice and Direction Instead of Giving Orders

    As mentioned above, giving a team member advice and guidance will always come off better than giving orders - the key is to be assertive while doing so. Rather than simply telling a team member that they are "doing it wrong," you can say something like "I've got some advice for you on this task, let me show you the best way to complete it." Of course, if they don't get the hint, you may need to take a more direct approach (but in my experience, most people take the hint!).

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    4. Offering Compromise when Appropriate

    Certain elements of a project are fairly concrete, but others afford a measure of flexibility. If someone on your team interprets a task slightly different from you (as a project manager), give it some solid consideration -- oftentimes your team will come up with some great ideas. Additionally, if your team knows that they can think critically and creatively about their tasks, they're more likely to care about what they're doing, and they're more likely to bring potential problems/solutions to your attention. Offering compromise may not seem assertive, but it enables you to be more assertive -- people will respect your requests more when they don't think they're blindly following orders.

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    5. Maintaining Professionalism

    maintaining professionalism 

    Being an assertive leader is linked with your professionalism. One of the best ways to be an assertive leader, who is also well-liked by the team, is to maintain constant professionalism in the workplace. As a project manager, you should demand professionalism from your team, and you should be the one to set the example. In a professional environment, it's easy for leaders to be assertive.

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    6. Using an Empathy-Based Approach

    Project managers can sometimes come off as very demanding, and it's important to be as respectful to your team as possible when assigning tasks. One of the best approaches to this is to empathize with your team, which basically means putting yourself in their shoes. Pretend that the roles are reversed and you're the one receiving the instructions instead of giving them, and think about how the specific wording of those instructions would make you feel. Do the instructions seem condescending? Do they seem potentially confusing? Think about how your team members are going to feel before you say something -- think about how you'd like to be treated if you were in their situation.

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    7. Constructive Criticism

    When it comes to creative tasks (such as logos, websites, marketing material, etc.), you may have to have team members do several revisions. The goal of constructive criticism is not simply to make people feel better about their work, but it is to point them in the best possible direction. There's nothing more assertive than giving good constructive criticism.

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    8. Recognizing Good Work

    a job well done 

    As a leader, you need to actively manage your team's efficiency and morale; by utilizing simple motivational techniques, your opinion will be valued more, making it easier to be assertive. One of the easiest things you can do is congratulate your team members on a job well done -- take the time to notice where they put in the extra effort and make sure they know it's not going unnoticed. If your team sees that you can recognize good work, they'll take you seriously when you point out any problem.

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    9. Turning Expectations into Instructions

    An assertive leader will communicate their expectations effectively to their team. Expectations are different from instructions, but they go hand in hand. You might instruct a team member to create a report detailing your company's web traffic, but your expectations are that it be as informative as possible, be presentable to investors and be free of errors by the time it's due -- and it cannot be late. The further your expectations deviate from your instructions, the more likely the end result is to suffer. Some expectations can be assumed, such as those that you have made clear on previous occasions, but it's best to err on the side of caution. If you neglected to mention something when assigning a task and it doesn't get done correctly, you might come off looking bad.

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    10. Respect your Team

    Our last lesson in how to become assertive revolves around respect. If you don't have your team's respect, then being assertive really will come off 'jerky' -- the key to getting their respect is to give them respect. Respect is mutual, and it's powerful. Think about it: how do you feel when someone you respect (such as a parent or spouse) asks you to do something, versus the way you feel when someone you have little respect for asks you to do something -- big difference! We all want to do a good job for the people we respect, and when they are assertive, we pay attention.

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