Real Life: All pushed out: Determined and dynamic - or pushy and horrible? Hester Lacey on the backlash against assertiveness

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'ASSERTIVE, to me, means frightful, pushy people who send in four- page CVs with grinning colour photos on the front, who phone every day, and who won't take no for an answer.' Recruitment officer Andrew Finch sighs. 'Really, pushing and shoving are counterproductive. In the end I have to get assertive myself and start digging my heels in. Sometimes I get as far as slamming down the phone, which makes me feel furious with myself. You can tell some of them have read the same books on how to get jobs - they use the same tactics over the phone.'

Assertiveness has developed a distinct image problem. 'Don't call me assertive] Assertive people are horrid,' pleaded one (assertive) journalist. 'Assertive? That means bossy and overbearing - not me at all,' simpered another (equally assertive).

Some of the blame must fall on the bewildering array of self-training manuals now filling shelves in every book shop, encouraging aspiring job- hunters not to be backward about coming forward. Successful Self-Marketing, screams one crimson cover; How To Get The Job You Want, promises another in acid green; Sell Yourself, encourages another.

The way to get on, many emphasise, is by nothing less than persistent pestering. For example, when a potential employer says 'I haven't time to see you,' one manual suggests brightly replying 'I understand how busy you must be; it sounds like the kind of atmosphere I could work well in. Since you are so busy, what is the best time of day for you? I will be in your area tomorrow, so why don't I come by and see you?'

'It's maddening,' says the put- upon Andrew Finch. 'You hate them without even meeting them. You can't blame people for trying hard when there are so few jobs around, but this really is assertiveness-gone- berserk. They make you feel like hiding under your desk and waving a white flag.'

Over the last decade assertiveness training has become widely accepted, particularly for women. Organisations such as the Industrial Society conduct in-house sessions; Floodlight, the directory of London local authority adult education classes, lists nearly 60 different courses under the 'assertiveness' heading, and there are thousands of private trainers.

Some examples of assertiveness in action might seem odd to the uninitiated. After newly-fledged executive Marilyn Wheeler took an assertiveness course, she stomped into her boss's office to tell him that in her opinion, his oriental carpet and expansive desk were nothing but blatant power signals. He took it to heart. The carpet was consigned to the rubbish dump and the desk replaced with a friendly round table. Ms Wheeler eventually moved to California and now makes her living writing books on dealing assertively with problem people in the workplace.

Not every boss would cave in so meekly. Some traditional managers remain sceptical about the benefits of learning to speak up for oneself. 'Good thing she didn't try that out on me,' snorted Richard Hyatt, managing director of a small printing firm. 'I would have sent her off with a flea in her ear and told her to find some work to do. The furniture in my office is up to me and if I wanted to sit on a six-foot-high throne surrounded by bearskin rugs I would do it.'

Kay Barwick, a trainer with the Redwood Women's Training Association, believes many would-be asserters have got the wrong end of the stick. 'It's a common myth that assertiveness equals aggression,' she insists. 'In fact the key words are equality, honesty and directness. Fifteen years ago when it was new, I remember seeing a man on television training people to respond to put- downs with even greater put-downs but that is simply aggression. Assertiveness is about putting your own feelings and thoughts across clearly, listening to the response, and getting into negotiation and communication.'

Negative views of assertiveness have led to repackaging, according to Ms Barwick. 'There is a definite avoidance of the term - it has such negative connotations. 'Effective communications', 'influencing skills' - it gets wrapped up in all sorts of different ways. It's the fault of bad teaching when assertiveness goes into aggression. Anyone can read a book and set up a course.'

Judy Piatkus of Piatkus Books, which publishes around 50 self-help titles a year, has also noticed a shift in emphasis. 'Assertiveness training came from the States, where being aggressive is considered a compliment - people say things like 'Oh, you're so aggressive, that's unusual for a Brit'. Assertiveness was far more pleasant. But the buzzword for the Nineties is 'empowerment' - enabling people to develop their potential to the full.'

Naomi and Claire, who work in a busy advertising sales department, went on a two-day assertiveness training course sponsored by their company. Their reactions were mixed. 'Some of it was very useful,' said Naomi, 27. 'Suggestions on effective presentation in meetings, how to project yourself, how to put forward your ideas clearly are always useful. But all those are personal skills.

'It's when you start to try and bring in other people who are a totally unknown quantity that you see the gaps in the theories. Lots of our course involved role-playing, which is all very well when I'm trying out techniques on Claire, who knows the game, but quite different when I try them on a difficult client who has options like being thoroughly bloody- minded or putting the phone down or yelling and refusing to co-operate.'

According to Claire, also 27, the problem was that the course assumed that everyone has a basic level of reasonableness. 'It suggested that if you yourself are calm, sensible and willing to negotiate, everyone else will fall into line. But they won't. And as for things like learning to send back cold food in restaurants - well, moral victories are all very well. But however much right you have on your side, I've worked in restaurants and I know that more than likely your resentful waiter will spit in it, rearrange it on the plate, bung it in the microwave and send it straight back out.

'I reckon that assertiveness can very easily be demolished by sullenness, refusal to co-operate, laziness, or just plain nastiness. I think charm is far more effective and subtle.'

Are traditional assertiveness courses being superseded? Maybe, thinks Ian Campbell, marketing director of an outplacement company, Focus. 'Assertiveness training in the traditional sense isn't relevant any more. The word is really a bit of a red rag these days.' What employees really need nowadays, he says, are 'influencing skills'.

'It's a myth that for women to survive in a man's world they need to be assertive - historically that was true, but traditional management structures have changed forever,' says Mr Campbell, optimistically. 'Enlightened companies have overturned the old pyramid-shaped hierarchy and created much flatter structures. What's needed is people who can build teams and negotiate, and women are better at finding common ground, not upsetting people.'

One very good reason to beware of self-promotion is that no-one can resist the spectacle of the over-assertive crashing - witness the crowing over David Mellor and his Chelsea strip, Jeffrey Archer's unfortunate share deal, John Patten's fall from office, Madonna's waning career, and the reports that poor Hillary Clinton is considering retreating from politics after the embarrassing rejection of her health care reform policies.

But keeping one's end up still has its place. 'I'm a bit cynical about this supposed move towards more caring- sharing egalitarian offices,' warns Philippa Davies, an author and training consultant whose book, Total Confidence, was published earlier this year. 'Not every company is the Body Shop or Ben and Jerry's'

A precedent has already been set in the animal kingdom. In his book The Selfish Gene, zoologist Richard Dawkins examines a hypothetical community of swaggering 'hawks' and mild-mannered 'doves'. The passive doves, who flutter away from every confrontation, do pretty well while the bullying hawks are slugging it out amongst themselves. But when the population settles down, the hawks end up in the majority. The meek, it seems, do not in fact inherit the earth.

(Photograph omitted)

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