Articles // March 16,2023

Balancing Assertiveness and Empathy: Navigating the fine line of effective women leadership

By Meenakshi Girish, Editor: Chandrani Datta

Women leaders have made significant strides in recent years, breaking through barriers and occupying positions of power in various industries. Some end up being called ‘dominating’ and ‘bossy’ while some are known to be ‘too quiet’ and ‘passive’. It can be tough for women to be assertive and also soft and empathetic when the situation necessitates it. In every workspace, this continues to be a delicate balancing act for women leaders.

Striking the right balance is essential to being an effective leader, building trust, and achieving positive results. In this article, we’ll explore how women can navigate the fine line of effective women leadership skills by balancing assertiveness and empathy.

A study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that companies with more diverse women in leadership roles are more profitable. The study found that companies with gender-diverse executive teams were 21% more likely to have above-average profitability, compared to companies with less diverse women teams.

Assertiveness vs. Aggressiveness

 Assertiveness is often mistaken for aggressiveness, especially when exhibited by women leaders. Assertiveness involves being confident, expressing opinions, setting boundaries and standing up for oneself and others, without violating the rights of others. Aggressiveness, on the other hand, involves using forceful and domineering tactics to get one’s way, often at the expense of others.

In the technology industry, Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, is a perfect example of a leader who balances assertiveness and empathy. In an interview with CNBC, Wojcicki explained how she learned to be more assertive, saying “I found that when I was more assertive, people responded better to me, and I was able to get more done.” By balancing her assertiveness with empathy, Wojcicki was able to create a culture of innovation and collaboration at YouTube.

The act of being assertive also becomes essential beyond the workplace when women leaders need to delegate work or ask for help, being clear about their needs, limitations and priorities. It’s tough to maintain time boundaries and invest energy wisely until and unless a leader can be assertive about her needs.

According to a study by Catalyst, a global non-profit organization that promotes workplace inclusion for women, employees who work for empathetic leaders are more likely to stay in their jobs. The study found that employees who work for empathetic leaders are three times more likely to stay with their companies, compared to those who work for leaders who lack empathy.

Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

 Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, manage, and use one’s own emotions effectively, as well as understand and influence the emotions of others. Women leaders who demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence can use empathy to connect with and motivate their teams.

A shining example of a woman leader who exemplifies empathy and emotional intelligence is Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors. Barra’s leadership style is based on the principles of “inclusion, innovation, and continuous improvement.” By promoting a culture of inclusivity and collaboration, Barra fosters an environment where employees feel valued and motivated to succeed.

Women leaders who balance assertiveness and empathy can improve customer satisfaction. A study by the consulting firm, Bain & Company, found that companies that prioritize customer experience and empathy outperform their competitors by more than 80% in customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Balancing Assertiveness and Empathy in Healthcare

Healthcare is an industry that requires leaders who can balance assertiveness with empathy. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a viral immunologist at the National Institutes of Health, is an excellent example of a woman leader who exhibits both qualities.

Dr. Corbett led the team that developed the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, which was authorized for emergency use in December 2020. In an interview with The New Yorker, Dr. Corbett spoke about the importance of balancing assertiveness with empathy, saying “you have to be a bulldog, but you also have to be a shepherd.”

Dr. Corbett’s leadership style is rooted in building trust with her team, establishing clear goals, and creating an environment where everyone feels heard and valued. By balancing assertiveness and empathy, Dr. Corbett was able to lead her team through a global crisis, developing a vaccine that has saved countless lives.

Women leaders who balance assertiveness and empathy can make better decisions. A study by the consulting firm, EY, found that women who exhibit high levels of emotional intelligence are more effective decision-makers, compared to men who exhibit the same levels of emotional intelligence.

Benefits of Balancing Assertiveness and Empathy

 Balancing assertiveness and empathy offers numerous benefits for women leaders. It allows them to establish credibility, build trust, and motivate their teams effectively. Here are some of the benefits:

  1. Increased Collaboration: Women leaders who balance assertiveness with empathy create an environment of collaboration, where team members feel valued and heard.
  2. Improved Communication: Effective communication is essential for any leader. By balancing assertiveness and empathy, women leaders can communicate effectively, motivating their teams to achieve their goals.
  3. Increased Creativity: Empathy allows leaders to understand the needs and concerns of their team members. By balancing assertiveness and empathy, women leaders can create an environment that fosters creativity and innovation, encouraging team members to share their ideas and perspectives.
  4. Improved Problem-Solving: Women leaders who balance assertiveness with empathy can navigate complex challenges and find solutions that benefit all stakeholders.
  5. Increased Productivity: Balancing assertiveness and empathy helps women leaders to motivate their teams, increase productivity, and achieve positive results.
  6. Increased Employee Engagement: When leaders balance assertiveness and empathy, they create a positive work environment where employees feel engaged and motivated.
  7. Improved Employee Retention: Employees are more likely to stay with an organization when they feel valued and appreciated. It helps women leaders to retain their top talent.
  8. Increased Diversity and Inclusion: Diverse women leaders who balance assertiveness with empathy can create a culture of diversity and inclusion, where all team members feel valued and respected.
  9. Improved Customer Satisfaction: Women leaders who balance well can better understand the needs and concerns of their customers, leading to increased customer satisfaction.
  10. Enhanced Personal Growth: Balancing assertiveness and empathy requires self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and ongoing personal growth.

In conclusion, balancing assertiveness and empathy is crucial for women leaders who want to be effective and achieve positive results. Effective women in leadership require assertiveness, confidence, and the ability to stand up for themselves and their teams, while also being empathetic, understanding, and able to connect with others.

A study by Harvard Business Review found that employees who work for empathetic leaders are more engaged, motivated, and productive. The study also found that companies with empathetic leaders have higher levels of employee satisfaction and lower levels of turnover.

By knowing when to adopt which style of communication, women leaders can create a culture of collaboration, trust, and innovation, achieving positive outcomes for themselves and their organizations. The examples from the technology, automotive, and healthcare industries highlight the importance of balancing these two qualities to achieve success for women in leadership roles. To understand how you can engage with your team better and more effectively, reach out to us.

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