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Striking the Balance Between Empathy and Assertiveness

empathy and assertiveness

Great salespeople are empathetic—they understand others well and that is part of what makes them successful sellers. In fact, InsideSales.com recently released their Business Growth Index Report, which ranks empathy as one of the top 2 traits sales leaders value in their best reps. But when these successful salespeople move into a management role, this personality trait can sometimes detract from their leadership effectiveness.  

Sales leaders with a strong sense of empathy and a tendency to avoid confrontation can be guilty of “letting too much go” with their team. They tend to accept too much, and they can have a difficult time knowing when to draw the line. 

Great leaders are able to empathize with their team, but they also have the capacity for “tough love”—they can put their foot down when the situation calls for it, despite the fact that it may feel uncomfortable.  

Balance empathy and assertiveness with your team by keeping the following 3 performance management principles in mind. 

1. Establish clarity to mitigate conflict 

Conflict is generally regarded as a negative thing, but a little bit of conflict can drive growth by enabling us to explore different ideas, approaches, or points of view. That being said, many sales leaders are wired to avoid confrontation, and a best practice to counter that is to establish a set of clear goals from the start. Develop a vision for what your team is to accomplish and what they will be held accountable for and communicate it clearly and consistently. After all, employees can’t be held accountable for performance levels unless concrete standards have been established.

Let your team know that it’s not your goals that they’re working towards, but their own. You can achieve this by involving employees in the development of their own performance standards. We value what we help create, and your team will feel more accountable to standards that they helped develop. They’ll also see that you’re vested in their success, and if a situation arises where those standards aren’t being met, the discussion will be around a breech in the agreement—and will feel less like a confrontation on poor performance.  

2. Salespeople manage themselves, your job is to manage their performance 

Michael Henry Cohen writes in his book, What You Accept is What You Teach: Setting Standards for Employee Accountability, that employees should be viewed as volunteers or independent agents who ultimately have a choice regarding their own behavior and performance. As a leader, you can’t force anyone to be accountable for their responsibilities and you can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do. Your people either have the intrinsic motivation and skills to meet your expectations, or they don’t. 

A leader’s role is to create a work environment that facilitates high performance—that means providing the resources necessary for success, giving clear feedback, and offering coaching where it’s needed.

Once you’ve worked with your team to develop specific standards of conduct, you must consistently monitor how well they are adhering to the expectations. By actively observing behavior and monitoring results, you can determine early where targeted coaching is needed and avoid unnecessary conflict down the road. 

3. It’s not about being liked or accepted 

Most people prefer to avoid conflict, but confusing being liked with being trusted or respected is a classic trap for many sales leaders. If you want to teach something and you don’t follow up with it, you’re essentially sending the message that it isn’t important. Great leaders stay true to their values, and they realize that holding other people accountable for outstanding performance is necessary not only to their own credibility, but to fulfilling the mission of the organization. 

It may feel like being empathetic and understanding and establishing personal relationships with your team members is the best way to influence them, but your team will actually struggle to grow if they’re not pushed out of their comfort zones. Great leaders recognize that they’re not doing anyone a favor by leaving their people alone to “do their own thing.” 

Motivated and engaged employees are constantly trying to improve their own performance and genuinely crave feedback and coaching. So while you may think you’re cutting someone a break by letting their poor performance slide, you are in fact doing them a disservice by failing to address the situation and provide your support. 

Which comes first, empathy or assertiveness? 

According to research from the Harvard Business Review, being lovable and being strong are the most influential traits a leader can possess, but the order in which those traits are revealed to followers is key. “Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear, and along with it a host of dysfunctional behaviors.” 

A growing body of research indicates that the best way to lead and influence is to begin with warmth. So use your empathy to connect with those around you, but balance it with an appropriate amount of assertiveness—you’ll be trusted, respected, and viewed as competent in the eyes of your followers. 

Joe Wilburn

More articles written by Joe Wilburn

Joe Wilburn is a Regional Vice President of Government Projects at The Brooks Group. Joe is passionate about strategic planning for public and private global organizations. He provides expert guidance on professional development, sales, and talent acquisition at all levels of leadership.