Think you’re assertive when things get ambiguous. You may want to think again!

Think you're assertive when things get ambiguous. You may want to think again!

Do you think you’re assertive?

During an Embrace the Unknown workshop, some participants were extremely surprised to learn that their Indicator of Ambiguity (IAm) profile identified they should focus on developing the skill ‘Assertion’ to build their tolerance of ambiguity.

I had conversations with several people who were confused because they believed they didn’t have a problem with being assertive.

They thought something was wrong with the tool until we started exploring the contexts in which they chose to be assertive and when they didn’t. They were very assertive when it came to:

  • Protecting the rights of their clients and other staff or
  • Asking for resources needed to do their jobs.

However, they did what many intelligent, proactive people with perfectionist tendencies do when things get ambiguous.

They were consistently overprepared and didn’t ask for help until they had enough information to make a decision.

The upside was that they could usually say, ‘Here’s something I prepared earlier.’ The downside was that they were working much harder than necessary and carrying more of the burden to protect their teams.

You may think that’s because they’re perfectionists, but it also happens to people who aren’t perfectionists.

It happens because assertive people can fail to be fully assertive in contexts that are ambiguous.

In the blog Why You Shouldn’t Wait and Watch in Uncertain Times, we explored how uncertainty holds inherent opportunities for growth and learning. When you accept the inherent unpredictability in an operating environment and adopt a more inclusive stance, you can enable your team and your peers to be more open to exploring new avenues, innovating, and embracing calculated risks.

However, in the face of the unknown, some people tend to withdraw and want to explore the options solo before letting their team or peers know they don’t have all the answers. Or they decide to develop and implement plans to cover multiple eventualities because the situation is so uncertain.

Think you're assertive when things get ambiguous. You may want to think again!

Instead, they should assertively seek (not take) multiple perspectives about how the situation could evolve and then assertively establish what needs to be in place for the organisation to respond with agility.

The proverb “A burden shared is a burden halved” exists because it’s a relatable truth and highly relevant when faced with ambiguity.

When we share our problems or difficulties with others, they become easier to manage.

In her book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth, Amy C Edmondson explains how Google’s Project Aristotle highlighted the critical role of psychological safety in unleashing the power of smart people in teams.

The Project Aristotle researchers found that psychological safety was the most important factor contributing to high performance even though the teams in the research study also had clear goals, colleagues they could depend on, and work they found meaningful and impactful.

If you feel you’re assertive but find yourself working harder when things get ambiguous, check if you’re using these three critical ingredients for unleashing your team:

1. Exhibit leadership behaviours that cultivate psychological safety, especially:

a. acknowledge the limits of your current knowledge

b. willingly but authentically display fallibility and

c. invite participation from others before you have the answers.

(For more evidence-based behaviours check out p.139 of Amy Edmondson’s book Teaming: How Organisations Learn, Innovate and Compete In the Knowledge Economy).

2. Get your team to learn from doing and continually adjust the course based on their learning. This will prevent getting stuck in a cycle of overthinking and inaction.

3. Recognise when you are personally holding back and when being more assertive will open up new possibilities.

Think you're assertive when things get ambiguous. You may want to think again!

When faced with ambiguity, being assertive is like having a compass in a storm, guiding you and your team in the right direction while you discard unnecessary cargo and avoid the hidden rocks.

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