Researchers Uncover Best Bosses' Success Secret

Charles Lester, left, and Nicole Peoples, right, work at their cubicles in the Dell customer contact center in Oklahoma City. (Image credit: AP Photo)

Bully bosses need to lighten up and wallflower managers would do well to stand up, according to a new study of what makes an effective business leader.

The researchers found that leaders tend to miss the mark when it comes to assertiveness, either erring on the side of overly aggressive or Mr. Nice Guy. This overlooked Achilles heel of a successful manager could cost companies big time in terms of high turnover and low productivity, they suggest.

"Aspiring leaders who are low in assertiveness can't stand up for their interests, and they suffer by being ineffective at achieving goals and delivering results," said co-researcher Daniel Ames of Columbia University Business School.

Too much assertiveness can be just as, if not more, detrimental to a manager's success.

"People high in assertiveness are often insufferable. So, even though they may get their way, they're choking off relationships with the people around them," Ames said.

Boss basics

Ames and Francis Flynn of Stanford University collected leadership information about a group of 168 students enrolled in a Master's of Business (MBA) program at an East Coast university. Students contacted several former colleagues and had them fill out an anonymous online survey. Respondents commented on the student's leadership strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the weakness-comment instructions included, "Consider any areas where you think this person could improve as a colleague and leader. What do you wish they would do differently?"

More than half of the 426 weakness responses included clear references to assertiveness, with about an equal split between too much and too little assertiveness. One respondent stated, "Being hardnosed and blunt can be an efficient means of getting things done, but can bruise people's feelings in the process."

Another responded, "[X] could be stronger on his point of views. He sometimes is willing to sacrifice his proposal to maintain a relationship and avoid tension."

Conscientiousness, intelligence and charisma topped the list of strengths.

The researchers then had a group of 213 MBA students evaluate their most recent manager. Participants rated the manager's overall effectiveness, his or her expected future success and participants' willingness to work for that manager again. Other survey questions focused on social effectiveness--or ability to build positive relationships with employees--and instrumental effectiveness, or the manager's ability to accomplish set goals.

Informants then rated the managers on a scale ranging from "assertive" to "competitive and aggressive," to "passive and submissive."

What breaks a leader? Bossy bosses showed much lower scores for social effectiveness compared with moderately assertive managers. Wishy-washy managers had much lower scores for goal achievement than moderate scorers.

Both extremes can break a leader. The researchers say that "increasing levels of assertiveness may often entail a trade-off between social costs and instrumental benefits-- between getting along and getting one's way."

Consider costs

Ames and Flynn explained the results in terms of diminishing returns. A drop from high to low assertiveness boosts social benefits and a bump from low to moderate yields an increase in concrete achievements.

At either extreme, the results boil down to company costs, as overbearing bosses can trigger a wealth of turnover and submissive managers can arrest profit-generating achievements, Ames said.

"In both cases, one of the costs would be turnover, especially for highly assertive managers. They may be so abrasive that subordinates can't develop an effective working relationship with them and leave or move elsewhere in an organization," Ames told LiveScience.

"At the low end, unassertive managers and leaders are simply just less capable of achieving their operational objectives, they can't push as hard, they can't gather the resources, they can't move projects forward as well and that all ends up being costly in operational terms for the organization," he added.

Magic ingredients

The search for a perfect CEO or project manager who brings in millions with cutting-edge products and is still considered a good team leader by employees could be in vain ... or maybe not. The media and now scientists would suggest the search is not a wasted cause. Business-related columns abound, such as Business Week's "The Welch Way," in which former General Electric CEO Jack Welch and his wife Suzy give advice on how to deal with jerks in the office or succeed in a new endeavor.

Reality shows aren't immune either. One recent hit "The Apprentice" spotlighted Donald Trump who groomed, and then "fired," ladder-climbing contestants.

Ames and Flynn avoid recommending middle-of-the-road management all the time.

"It's not that they need to push less hard, but sometimes assertive people just need to add some additional behaviors to their repertoire," Ames said. "And one example of that would be listening. A lot of people who are high in assertiveness could benefit from working on their listening skills."

With an open ear, a manager might also get feedback from employees, Ames said. Often, executives were unaware of how others viewed their behaviors, the scientists wrote in their research paper published in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"One reason is because people typically don't get candid feedback on things like assertiveness," Ames said. "Who wants to tell the overbearing boss that he or she is a jerk?"

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.