A summary of article: “What Breaks a Leader: The Curvilinear Relation Between Assertiveness and Leadership”

The authors studied the relation between assertiveness and leadership, and contrary to prior research works focused on linear relationship between leadership qualities and assertiveness, they have investigated the curvilinear effect of assertiveness on the perception of leader. Ames and Flynn (2007) have identified social and instrumental components of assertiveness and created a cost-benefit curve showing the change of leader perceptions with the growth of assertiveness. Three consequent studies were devoted to three hypotheses constituting the curvilinear effect of assertiveness on leadership. Multilevel regression analysis and qualitative scoring it was proved that assertiveness is one of the important components of leadership, there is a curvilinear relationship with maximal leadership potential focused around middle assertiveness level, and that there are two groups of assertiveness outcomes (social and instrumental), which are in direct and inverse relationships with the level of assertiveness.

Heading : What Breaks a Leader: The Curvilinear Relation Between Assertiveness and Leadership
Journal: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Year of the publication: 2007
Source of the article: retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-922307.pdf on July 10, 2011
Research topic
Assertiveness is defined as the tendency of an individual to defend and pursue own interests actively (Ames & Flynn, 2007). Previous researchers have established several contradictory causal relationships between various manifestations of assertiveness and leadership. On one hand, previous studies have proved that effectiveness of a leader closely correlated with high assertiveness expressed as dominance and aggressiveness; on the other hand, leadership appeared to be closely linked to cooperativeness and self-sacrifice which relate to low assertiveness.

The authors found out that there were a lot of works studying the qualities positively associated with leadership (i.e. what makes a leader), and relatively few researchers focused on attributes of ineffective leadership (i.e. what breaks a leader). The authors suggested that assertiveness is an important component of leadership, and that leader weaknesses are qualitatively different from leader strengths.

The assumption of Ames and Flynn (2007) was the following: this curve is maximized in the middle, and both high and low levels of assertiveness break the leader. The authors developed three hypotheses (Ames & Flynn, 2007):
1) assertiveness is a commonly mentioned theme in perceptions of the leadership weaknesses (both with regard to over- and underassertiveness);
2) assertiveness has a curvilinear relationship to perceived leadership
3) assertiveness is positively associated with instrumental outcomes and negatively associated with social outcomes
Three studies were performed in accordance with the hypotheses, and all three hypotheses were proven.

The first study is the analysis of anonymous comments on leadership weaknesses and strengths for potential leaders (MBA students). The respondents were the colleagues of these students who worked with them during a 2-5 year period. The sample consisted on 168 people, with 4 responses from colleagues on average for each student. The colleagues gave qualitative feedback and filled in the ThomasKilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (Ames & Flynn, 2007).
In the second study, MBA students gathered assertiveness and leadership ratings from their colleagues; the sample included 388 full-time MBA students (not included in Study 1). In this study, participants contacted their colleagues and the latter completed an online survey on four domains of leadership, and filled in the ThomasKilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (Ames & Flynn, 2007). In this study, the respondents also indicated how well they knew the perceived leader. On average, the number of respondents was 3.87 raters per student.
Study 3 replicates and extends the results of two previous studies. The effects of assertiveness were studied on a broad sample of 213 leaders with average age greater than that of MBA students from 2 previous studies. This study also included the analysis of mediation patterns and their relation to the level of assertiveness, and in this study the authors managed to measure the perceptions of overall leadership effectiveness. In this case, full-time MBA students provided data about their supervisor or manager; the respondents completed an anonymous survey, where they had to describe the strengths and weaknesses of a chosen manager as a leader, rated overall, social and instrumental effectiveness, assertiveness and indicated how well they knew the manager.

Quantitative text analysis of responses in Study 1 allowed to single out a number of adjectives associated with leadership and assertiveness-related adjectives. Qualitative coding of leader’s strengths and weaknesses showed that comments related to leadership weaknesses were primarily related to overassertiveness (48% of weakness comments) (Ames & Flynn, 2007). A lower, but still significant level of assertiveness-related comments was witnessed in the comments on strengths (Ames & Flynn, 2007). Moreover, TKI measurements of overassertiveness and comments qualitatively associated with overassertiveness correlated.

For the second study, the overall leadership scale alpha was equal to 0.89; medium within-subject reliability of leadership components was witnessed (from 0.34 to 0.44). Multilevel modeling and regression analyses were used to predict leadership measures. Inverted-U curvilinear effect was obtained as a result of this modeling, and the authors have shown that this effect more precisely reflects the relationship between leadership and assertiveness than linear models. Moreover, underassertiveness affected the leadership score less than overassertiveness, contrary to common direct relation expectations expressed in previous studies.

In study 3, the predicted curvilinear effects with regard to assertiveness were found for both overall leadership effectiveness rates and for components of leadership. Middle range of assertiveness was associated with the most positive perceptions of leadership. The authors used multiple regression models to establish the relationship between the type of outcomes and assertiveness level; they have proved that negative social outcomes were related to overassertiveness, and negative instrumental outcomes were related to underassertiveness. A relationship between assertiveness and extraversion was also established.

Qualitative and quantitative results of study 1 have shown that the topic of assertiveness is dominant in comments on leadership both with regard to leadership strengths and to leadership weaknesses, which proves the first hypothesis. In study 2, curvilinear relationship between assertiveness and leadership was shown using rate level, target level and multilevel modeling. Moreover, the researchers found out that high levels of assertiveness were associated with lower leadership ratings than low levels of assertiveness. Ames and Flynn expressed a suggestion that this effect might be the result of the specific characteristics of the participants rather than a common trend. Overall, the second hypothesis also appeared to be true.

Results of study 3 clearly showed that managers with assertiveness below or above the middle level were evaluated as less positively leaders than moderately assertive ones. Qualitative coding in study 3 was performed by two independent assistants not informed about the hypotheses; the high level of correlation between the coding schemes showed that leadership perceptions were similar to Study 1, and that assertiveness was a prevalent theme in comments on leadership both with regard to leadership strengths and weaknesses. For low assertiveness level, instrumental outcomes weakened the overall leadership rating of the participants, and for high assertiveness level, social outcomes lowered the leadership score. Thus, third hypothesis was proved using qualitative and quantitative analysis. In the Implications section the authors also suggest that the relation between middle level of assertiveness and high leadership scores does not necessarily mean that good leaders always act as moderately assertive; this perception rather means that good leaders are flexible and exhibit a broader range of reactions than mangers with high or low assertiveness level. Overall, this study is highly important for managers, professionals involved in leadership trainings and all psychologists studying leadership since it presents a curvilinear relationship of assertiveness and leadership.
Ames, D.R. & Flynn, F.J. (2007). What Breaks a Leader: The Curvilinear Relation Between Assertiveness and Leadership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (2), 307 324.


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