Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 219
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Employee Assertiveness and Manager Performance

Research discovers a new benefit of assertive employee behavior.

There is a chore in management that managers and supervisors foul up so often, and so routinely, that researchers study it. This chore occurs when we sit down individually with employees and give them bad news:

"You're late to work, again." "We've had complaints about you." "Your performance is not up to our standards."

Employees don't like bad news, so it should come as no surprise to learn that employees often leave these meetings with harsh words for their supervisors and resistance to the outcomes of the meetings. And their hostility hurts the employer-employee relationship by creating unfavorable expectations of other employees for "management."

Managers would like to be able to give bad news without arousing hostility, but researchers have discovered a serious handicap. It is us.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that managers perform poorly in these meetings. Managers are often insensitive and abrupt, and management consultants are often called upon to teach managers sensitivity and communication skills so that they might improve their performance during these meetings.

Audrey Korsgaard, from the University of South Carolina, had a novel idea, a wonderful, refreshing, revealing, novel idea. Since conversations occur during these meetings, and since conversations involve two people, and since each person's behavior influences the other person, perhaps a good way to improve managers' performance would be to change the way employees behave in these conversations. That is, improve managers' performance by changing employees' behavior. Korsgaard tested her idea in a nearby company.

She spent an hour training half of the employees assertiveness behaviors as the company prepared to implement a new performance appraisal program. The new program added a self-assessment step that preceded the formal performance review interview. To Ms. Korsgaard, it seemed to be an ideal opportunity to supplement these employee-generated ratings with assertiveness skills. These skills would help employees adequately present their self-ratings to managers.

For the record, the assertive behaviors she trained the employees to perform included succinct comments that stated one's own position in a confident manner that did not devalue the message. She taught active listening techniques such as paraphrasing and asking questions for clarification, and she trained them to use assertive nonverbal behaviors such as eye contact and an involved body posture (leaning forward toward the rater).

Korsgaard used a survey to measure employee attitudes when they had finished their formal performance reviews and found two differences for employees receiving the assertiveness training. They expressed a much more positive attitude toward the appraisal they had received, and they felt much greater trust in the manager. Curiously, these changes occurred without them noticing any significant differences in the behavior of the managers during these interviews, but remember, the managers weren't trained to do anything differently.

Clearly, the assertiveness training improved employees' reactions to the appraisal process, and an improved attitude would be welcomed by managers. It's no fun conducting meetings with hostile employees. Indeed, if employee behavior could be improved, managers would be much more likely to preform well in these "bad news" meetings . . . less likely to be untruthful and more likely to treat people with courtesy and respect, more likely to adequately consider employees' input, to suppress personal biases, to consistently apply decision-making criteria, to provide timely feedback, and to adequately explain and justify decisions that are made. Assertiveness training for employees in the context of a performance review program seems ideal because it actively solicits these behaviors from the manager.

Reference: Korsgaard, M. Audrey, Loriann Roberson, and R. Douglas Rymph, (1998) What Motivates Fairness? The Role of Subordinate Assertive Behavior of Managers' Interactional Fairness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83 (5), 731-744.

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