Define "forceful".
August 21, 2014 7:30 AM   Subscribe

Several different managers have told me that I need to develop a "more forceful" persona. I'm trying to work out exactly what this means. More details inside.


My office culture is definitely not a shouty/interrupty one: generally, people support each other, give credit where it is due and help out when other teams are busy. There is a bit of showing off but not in a nasty way (ie at others' expense).

Also, the same managers who've made the comment about being more forceful have agreed that I am good at my job. I am a good manager, confident communicator, I speak up in meetings, I've improved the performance of my last two teams by getting them to work much more strategically. I agree that some of my strengths at work are around things like brokering compromises, facilitating discussions etc, but that just seems to me like an effective way of getting things done.

So essentially, I'm not really sure what they mean. To deal with this I'm trying to break "forceful" down into specific behaviours that I can actually practice. So far, I've got:

- energy/pace in communication - I tend to mirror the person I am talking to so if they are a bit laid-back then I don't always have a lot of energy in my delivery
- having a clear 'elevator pitch' about my vision and achievements at work, and using it (related to the 'showing off' point, above)
- identifying useful projects that involve other teams, and persuading those other teams to contribute to them (not quite 'forceful', but it would show that I can influence/change things outside my management line)
- um.... that's it, really.

Any more ideas? (I'm also planning to ask my current manager for what he thinks I should be doing differently).
posted by ontheradio to Work & Money (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
To put a spin on it, perhaps these managers are saying that you're good at your job, you make good decisions and see good solutions to problems, but they feel that you spend more time than is necessary to get those solutions/ideas/decisions implemented; a discussion/compromise culture can look like you're being too nice and making sure everybody's been heard and that nobody else has a better idea, but that's an extended discussion when you had your idea ages ago. Maybe they're hoping that time could be saved if you just said "This is what we should do. I've decided, let me hand out tasks now. Any objections, see me after the meeting."
posted by aimedwander at 7:54 AM on August 21, 2014

I would definitely ask them for specific examples of times when you needed to be more forceful. That might narrow it down.

If you're female, and the people telling you this are male, I think this can be as much about the fact that they don't understand that the management/leadership styles that work for you may not be the same ones they would be able to use. I'd suggest reading the book Women Don't Ask to give you some ideas of the way behavior is gendered in the workplace, and strategies for how to address this.

I would also suggest re-framing "showing off" in your mind -- it's not showing off, it's making sure that upper management understands and values your contributions. It's HARD to do that when you're socialized not to (which generally means "female") -- I caught myself responding to a compliment from someone in upper management last week with a "Thanks, but it's not --" and then caught myself and rephrased. It is hard. But it is really important to learn how to take compliments well and blow your own horn when appropriate.
posted by pie ninja at 7:57 AM on August 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hmm. I'm probably a forceful person and am sometimes frustrated by people I perceive as being indirect or easily dissuaded, so I wonder if this is what they're responding to.

Do you clearly state your desires in unequivocal terms? To me this would sound like: "I'd like to get this project rolling by October 1st. I'll need Sue to handle xyz by mid-September and Malik to take responsibility for 123. Any questions?" or,"I hear you're hoping to get this report on Thursday, so I'll plan to complete a draft this afternoon and incorporate feedback from Beth and Linda over the next three days." or "I'm concerned this deadline is too short. I'd like to extend until October so we have time to complete the xyz".

Basically, I'm saying hearing concise and specific statements that clearly articulate preferences and opinions and provides rationale is what helps me to feel I am communicating well with someone.

I know this stuff is incredibly bound up in culture, gender, and individual temperament and it is unfair that the workplace favors one "type" over another, but I think that's what it is.
posted by latkes at 8:01 AM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm someone who scores well into the "mediator" zone, when it comes to interpersonal and negotiation styles. While I -- and seemingly you -- may see this as a valuable skill, I've found that it isn't one that is typically appreciated in many workplaces. Or, more accurately, even noticed. There may be a trend toward teamwork and so on, but as animals we seem to still "see" and prize qualities of aggression, decisiveness, and firmness.

You've identified some good approaches to raising your profile in that area, and talking to your manager should indeed help clarify matters. And aimedwander's efficiency suggestion may well be accurate, too. But I'm wondering if this isn't just a dumb perception problem, based on your literal manner when dealing with others. For instance, do you always wait for the other person to stake their position, and then work around that? Your workplace may not be inerrupt-ish, but do you allow others to speak over you more frequently than not? Do you default to deferential body language or phrasing (e.g. averted eyes, or automatic prefacing apologies)? If these are the sorts of behaviors that your supervisors' can "see" (as weaknesses, fairly or no), they may not be able to catch the quiet leadership you are actually typically displaying.

Should any of that ring true, you might try experimenting with approaching your next "negotiating" situation from a non-conciliatory position, from the drop. Or being more conscious of the assertiveness cues you are giving off, and trying to modify them. (I know you describe yourself as being "confident" in meetings, etc, but I've sometimes been surprised at how un-confident I occasionally appear to be when I think the opposite is true. This can be as subtle as a smile when speaking vs. my typical resting frown-face.)
posted by credible hulk at 8:04 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, the same managers who've made the comment about being more forceful have agreed that I am good at my job. I am a good manager, confident communicator, I speak up in meetings, I've improved the performance of my last two teams by getting them to work much more strategically.

Maybe the people you need to be more forceful with are these managers. If you're doing well and improving performance of your team, then I'd take an 'it's not broke, don't fix it' attitude. If these managers bring up the issue again, I'd say something like: "I've found my management style to be effective for my teams thus far. Can you point to specific instances in which you think a more forceful demeanor would have led to a better result?"
posted by melissasaurus at 8:27 AM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

This seems vague enough that I would just ask. It could be code for so many things, some of which could be their own perception/prejudice /preferences. I am guessing it is the "hows" of the job you are doing: how you communicate, how you decide on things, how you present yourself.

Maybe they mean: tell people to do something and expect that they do it, instead of "building consensus" and "facilitating discussions"; it could mean having a clear opinion and stating it unequivocally, and thus having a clear direction for the team that comes from YOUR opinion and not the consensus decision of the group; it could mean setting yourself up as the leader, so instead of mirroring the other person's communication style, you come in expecting them to catch up to YOUR style; it could mean that you put up with more crap than you ought to and need to snirk back when (if) someone makes an aside comment. I see a lot of micro-status power plays go on at work and it takes skill to see it and play it back properly. (Honestly it reminds me of puppies climbing on top of each other to prove who is tougher, but that's the game they play.)

It sounds like you've got a lot of social skills and could climb much higher than you are, and they are giving you suggestions how to do that. Confidence is a tricky game and remember that the higher you go, the more YOU have to make the decision. Who tells the CEO of pepsi what to do? Who tells her if this acquisition is a good risk or if that new product is worth developing? In the end she says yes/no/change it. Realizing that mindset helped me go from a consensus-type leadership team style to a decisive style, and back & forth where needed.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:28 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Forceful, to me, means "Tell, don't ask". Don't ASK people to complete a project by friday. TELL them that you the project done by friday. That sort of thing. You can still be polite, but you need to be more direct.

"I need you to do this" not "Would you mind doing this?"
"Have this done by Friday" not "Do you think you can have it done by Friday?"

They mean act like more of an authority, take charge, LEAD. They want you to LEAD.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:22 AM on August 21, 2014 [9 favorites]

There are many interpretations of "forceful" so I agree that you need to seek clarification from those giving you the feedback. Ask them to cite a specific scenario in which they wanted this from you, and how you might have altered your behavior to better suit their ideals. They could be reacting to cultural/gender stereotypes, your overall managerial style, your decisiveness, or even such ephemeral constructs as your presence and projected authority.

This might not be a matter of how well you do your job now, but whether you are prepared to do the next job they think you'd otherwise be capable of doing.

It can't hurt to do some research on body language that conveys authority. Slowly, consciously build some of those actions into the muscle memory for how you perform daily tasks.
posted by itstheclamsname at 9:32 AM on August 21, 2014

Volume and ability to project your voice is hugely important and can affect others' perceptions of your confidence and assertiveness even if your language itself is already on point. Being proactive and volunteering information/strategy is also important.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:37 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another simple thing that I've found really affects peoples perceptions of "forcefulness" is hedging language (1, 2). I began consciously experimenting with how I present myself a few years ago, and Hedging and Posture have had the largest impact on my perceived forcefulness/authority.
posted by DGStieber at 10:29 AM on August 21, 2014

My supervisor could certainly be more forceful. She says things like "I think we'll probably go in that direction." That's her making a decision. "Would you consider taking that on?" That's her giving me an assignment. She alludes to things or suggests things rather than being directive. That tendency makes her fabulous in any situation that requires diplomacy or other kinds of difficult or sensitive conversations. And she gets great results from us, but holy cow, I do wish sometimes that she'd just say "Here, do this and get it back to me by next Friday."
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 10:34 AM on August 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Only the people who told you this can say what they really meant (and maybe not even them, it might just be one of those things people just say when they have to say something.) I would take it not that they want you to be a hard-nosed asshole all the time, but as maybe a suggestion of a tool that you seem not to have in your toolbox.

You're right, compromise and discussion are excellent qualities. There are times, though, that the right tool for the task at hand is to get what you want now and explain later. Certain things are not open for compromise or discussion. Can you play bully when you need to? That's a skill.

Knowing when to use that ability (and when not to) is a different but also important skill. You can't get there, though, if you don't have the ability in the first place.
posted by ctmf at 12:17 PM on August 21, 2014

There's a difference between a) having a discussion with your team and coming to a consensus on how to proceed, and b) seeking input from your team and then you telling them what is to happen next and who is responsible for what. One is more like being the chair of a meeting and the other is more like being a leader.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:25 PM on August 21, 2014

There is a middle ground between 'ask, don't tell' and 'tell, don't ask' that you might find helpful if you're not comfortable issuing directions.

Those two approaches focus on the other person. The middle ground focuses on you: inform people what you're going to do, and signal that they need to line up with that.

So, compare and contrast:

"Would you be able to get me this draft before lunch on Friday?" (ask)
"Get this to me before lunch on Friday." (tell)
"I've set aside time at 1pm on Friday to clear your draft." (middle ground)

It's helpful to think of this approach as the intersection of two axes of approach - one focused on them, with ask at one end and tell at the other, and the other focused on you, with different degrees of openness to accommodating adjustments. Using the example above, the end points and middle might look like this:

"When do you think I should block out some time to clear this draft?" (very accommodating)
"I've set aside time at 1pm on Friday to clear your draft." (middle ground)
"I have to clear this draft at 1pm on Friday; I can't set aside any other time to do it." (not at all accommodating)
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:13 PM on August 21, 2014

(I forgot to say why this is assertive.

'Ask' and 'tell' leave it open for the other person to say '' It's easier for them to do, because you're talking about their autonomy, and your authority over them.

The other approaches focus on you. This makes it harder for them to say no, because to do so would be to directly compromise your autonomy over you. Specifically, you've taken the concept of a request off the table. It's a done deal. I'm doing this. What are you saying 'no' to, exactly? Are you suggesting I can't make decisions about what I'm going to do?

That's harder to do. It shouldn't be, but it just seems to be, and that's usually enough. Negotiation is not about whether the thing you need to be done will be done or not. Instead, it moves to how it will be done, if it moves beyond 'wow, ok' at all.)
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:21 PM on August 21, 2014

Look at your use of passive language and tone.
posted by gjc at 6:57 PM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

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