Home / News / Business Of Life /  Opinion | The lack of assertiveness can create teams that work with Chinese walls

I started my career at a steel company where, at one point, I worked as an executive assistant (EA) to one of the vice-presidents (VPs). The executive team met every fortnight to discuss important issues. At one meeting, the EA of the CEO wasn’t present and I was asked to substitute. The meetings were held in the boardroom, where the CEO would be seated at the head of the table and the VPs (six of them) on either side. The seating of VPs also followed a hierarchy, with the most senior to the CEO’s left and right. There was never any confusion about who sat where. I had to sit in the row behind and take notes.

At one point, when the discussion was about the sale of a division, one of the VPs differed with the CEO, sparking some disagreement. But arguments with the CEO never ever got heated. It was evident to me that what the VP was saying made a lot of sense, but there was no support forthcoming from anyone else.

During the bio-break, I overheard another VP telling this VP, “What you were saying made eminent sense. I wish the boss had understood." My thought was, if this was so obvious to you, why didn’t you speak up at the meeting? If you had spoken up, someone else would have done the same, and maybe the decision would have been different. It was proved some years later that the decision made that day was wrong.

In one of my previous jobs, I encountered a colleague who was soft-spoken and non-confrontational. In the first few interactions, he would come across as collaborative and wise. If he suspected that someone had a different point of view, he would avoid any discussion on the topic with that individual. Instead, he would share his idea with less critical or outspoken colleagues, win their acceptance, and go ahead with his ideas. Who he copied and who he excluded on emails was a giveaway. There was no transparency. He would have a discussion with someone but write to you without copying that individual. So, you never knew what he had discussed with the other individual, and the individual he’d spoken to had no idea what he was communicating to other stakeholders. It was obfuscation at its best.

Almost everything he implemented would face roadblocks down the road and cracks would show. The quality of decisions was obviously poor because there was neither sufficient input sought nor buy-in from people who mattered.

The tendency to avoid transparency and create obfuscation usually stems from three reasons: lack of assertiveness and fear of dealing with conflict, inability to engage in a logical debate, and a deep sense of insecurity (mostly as a result of the first two).

In some situations, the managers also play along because they suffer from the same syndrome. Then, parallel discussions and deals become the norm. It creates long-term damage.

In any team, over a period of time, people start behaving the way their manager encourages them to behave. Therefore, if you see someone in your team not being sufficiently assertive, point it out and help the person become assertive.

If assertiveness does not come to someone naturally, ask this person to come prepared for meetings and help the person deal with small things like interruption from others when they are speaking. Put them in situations where they have to deal with conflict. Force them to talk to stakeholders who may have difficult questions. Encourage them to be open in emails and keep all stakeholders in the loop. Show your team by example how to discuss contentious issues and reach an agreement. Teach them that being vulnerable or asking for help is not a bad thing. It’s far better to be assertive and clear than to find that you have created a culture of smokescreens and obfuscation, complicating the simple business of work.

T.N. Hari is head of human resources at and adviser to several venture capital firms and startups. He is the co-author of Saying No To Jugaad: The Making Of BigBasket.

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