There are (at least) two challenges that all leaders face. They are so common that we pretty much ignore them. These two challenges are like a dirty windshield on your car. You see it every day. The washer fluid doesn’t quite get it clean so you ignore the problem and go on dealing with more pressing issues. These two challenges, when examined together, provide tremendous insight about your employees and the environment in which they work. With proper leadership and coaching, these two challenges can be managed into better working relationships and work effectiveness.
Assertiveness is a personal dimension of all employees. Some employees are assertive and naturally seek to reduce ambiguity. They are comfortable asking clarifying questions and developing a shared understanding of a given topic.
Other employees are not assertive and seem to either not be bothered with ambiguity or are uncomfortable addressing the lack of clarity. My experience is that it is usually the latter. They haven’t developed the relationship and communication skills to resolve what is clearly an uncomfortable work situation.
Boundaries are a contextual quality of all work environments. Employees often face undefined boundaries. What do I mean by boundaries? I’m referring to job structure, performance expectations, and scope of work. An employee has defined boundaries when they know how to do their work, what is expected of them, and can easily identify tasks that our “out of bounds.”
On the other hand, when boundaries are undefined, employees are not sure how to do their work, what is expected of them, and what is their responsibility (and what is not). Desiring to be thought of as a high-performing employee, employees working with undefined boundaries take on many tasks and responsibilities, often leading to burnout and low performance.
So we have a personal dimension common to all employees and a context dimension common to all work situations. Let’s put them together and consider the effects and the leadership needs.
Low Assertiveness/Undefined Boundaries
This is the “Danger Zone.” When employees are low in assertiveness and working with undefined boundaries their job performance is likely to be low, or hit-and-miss at best. In this situation, the employee must almost accidentally do a good job.
In this case, leadership must rise to their responsibility and bring clarity to the situation for the employee. They must define how to do the work, set performance expectations, and clarify exactly what needs to be done and what should not. Leaders also need to coach employees on how to be more assertive and ask for clarity on the boundaries. Leaders don’t always get it right. The employee has a responsibility, too, to create a better working environment by asking clarifying questions.
High Assertiveness/Undefined Boundaries
With high assertiveness and undefined boundaries, we have an exercise in frustration for the employee. They want clear boundaries for their work, and they will likely pursue that, but they will only move to the effectiveness quadrant if the leaders do their job and provide that clarity.
Low Assertiveness/Defined Boundaries
There is potential for effectiveness when boundaries are clear and assertiveness is low. The potential depends on two things. Can the employee learn to be more assertive and can the leader coach the employee in that direction. If those two things exist, then the employee can move from merely potential to actually being effective.
High Assertiveness/Defined Boundaries
Finally, we have the most desired situation—when the employee is assertive and the boundaries are defined. You might ask, “Does the employee need to be assertive if the boundaries are defined?” Yes, because even when the job structure is clear, expectations are set, and the scope of work is established there is still an extremely broad range of possibilities for that employee.
The assertive employee and the boundary setting leader will work together and have an effective working partnership.
Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.