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Assertive Leadership Through Clear Agreement Making

If you think you need to be more assertive as a leader, reflect first on what you need to be assertive about. If it’s unclear, then you risk being too aggressive by demanding something from your team that you can’t clearly explain. Instead, become assertive about making clear agreements.

In the Agile Leadership Journey curriculum, we emphasize the need to balance your leadership power style between two ways of being - Accommodative and Assertive.

It’s best to think of this as a spectrum versus an either/or. Once we determine where our overall tendency lands on this spectrum, we can make a plan to bring our actions into better balance.

Following is a story about a leader who determined she was being too accommodating and how she avoided the pitfall of becoming overly aggressive as she added more assertiveness to her actions.

Rachel was concerned. Projects were beginning to meander. During regular check-ins, the updates were always reasonable. She could picture herself giving those same updates. She accommodated her staff and let the project continue to meander until the next check-in, when this would happen all over again.

The problem was that nothing got done. In the updates, it felt like there was some progress, but nothing ever completed.

Rachel wondered if she needed to be more assertive and demanding when projects were not where they should be. But she didn’t even know where the project should be. There was no agreement with the project leaders on what needed to be completed next and when it would be done.

It’s hard to hold someone accountable if there are no specifics to hold them accountable to!

In this situation, the leader's first job is to work with the people responsible for doing the work and be assertive about agreements. You must agree on the next deliverable and a target delivery date.

At some point in the future, it may be decided that either the deliverable needs to change or the date needs to change. That’s fair, as long as everyone is clear with each other on why the change happened. Later, you could do a post-mortem to discuss the delays and see if there are lessons the organization can learn. You can’t do this unless you are clear upfront as to why the delay occurred.

When you are making agreements with others, it’s not uncommon for there to be unknowns such that a target date cannot be set. In that situation, first, make an agreement on researching the unknown. A mentor of mine has this great line. When someone would say “I can’t give you a date because I don’t know when that can be done,” he would ask, “On what date can you give me a date?”

That becomes the next agreement - on that date, whoever is responsible for the task will provide a completion date.

Rachel went back to her team and got assertive about making agreements where there was no clarity. The regular check-ins are now filled with substantive conversations about progress toward specific objectives and how to move through the blockers that arise.

Everyone feels more productive. And Rachel avoided over-correcting her accommodative leadership into aggressive demands by finding a working balance with more assertiveness.

How would you rate your power style? In what ways could you create a better balance?

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