Assertiveness:the Difference Between Life and Death - Success and Failure

How confident are you being direct and open with your prospective and current customers or with your sales team? 

Do you avoid telling people things that you’re afraid they might not like to hear? 
Do you alter your message to make it more pleasant? 

Assertiveness is a critical skill for sales as well as for life in general. It is crucial to your success, both at work and at home. 

What is the cost of not speaking up? 

See if any of the following scenarios sound familiar: 

You waffle because you are afraid the customer will say ‘no’ How much business does this cost you? 
Your top sales person has some offensive habits - you don’t say anything because you’re afraid he might leave, rather than being assertive and talking through the issue. 
You have a gut feeling that something is going wrong with a big deal but never quite get round to telling the board or your manager and hope it will come right. You lose the deal and the board demands to know why - what is the cost? 

For me, one non-assertive incident cost me $80,000. Not a life-threatening situation, but I still could avoided it had I been more assertive. 

In 1991, my husband and I had sold our home in Colorado,and we were looking for ways to invest the profit. 

We were approached by a financial 'advisor', who introduced us to a man who wanted to borrow $80,000 to invest in his fast food business. The return on our investment was to be 15% interest, and he would start to pay us back within a couple of months. The deal was supposedly secure, but when I met the fast food restaurant owner, my intuition said that something was ‘off’. I didn’t speak up because I felt pressured from my husband and finacial advisor to sign the loan papers. 

Long story short, we never got any of the $80,000 or the interest and learned an expensive and painful lesson. Since then, I have committed to being more assertive when I sense something is ‘off’, even if it is uncomfortable, awkward, and inconvenient for me. 

Sometimes not speaking up can mean the difference between life and death. 
Let’s look at the example of the three plane crash incidents cited by Malcolm Gladwellin his book, “Outliers: The Story of Success”. 

Gladwell cites three extreme examples of how failure to communicate assertively cost hundreds of people their lives. Although you are a sales manager and not a pilot or copilots as in the following examples, you’ll understand the point that it is critical for you to pay more attention to the clarity and directness of your communication. 

The plane crashes involved three airlines: Air Florida,Korean Air, and Avianca Airlines (from Colombia). All three of these tragedies could have been prevented had the copilot dared to speak up more assertively with the Captain and/or the Air Traffic Controller. In all three incidents, the copilot only hinted that there was a major problem, hoping that the Captain would understand what he meant. The bottom line is that the crashes were due largely to someone’s hesitancy to speak up. 

Jeffrey S. Nielsen, former excecutive consultant for Fortune 100 companies,in his book 'The Myth of Leadership' highlights research demonstrating people’s tendency to 'soften the truth' when delivering unpleasant news to anyone they perceive as a 'superior'. 

Let’s look at an actual dialogue of one of the crashes. 
In 1982, Air Florida, crashed into an icy river right outside Washington, DC shortly after take-off. The copilot tried three times to tell the captain that the plane had a dangerous amount of ice on the wings, but he only spoke in 'hints', not direct statements. Take a look at the dialogue captured from the 'black box' which is the voice recording device recovered from the debris of the plane after it had crashed into the river. 

Copilot: "Look how the ice is just hanging on his, ah, back... back there, see that?" 

No response from the Captain. Then, a bit later: 

Copilot: "See all those icicles on the back there and everything?" 

Again no response. 


Copilot: "Boy, this is a, this is a losing battle here on trying to de-ice those things, it gives you a false feeling of security, that’s all that does." 

At last, when they get 'clearance for takeoff', the copilot magnifies his communication from a 'hint' to a 'suggestion'. 

Copilot:"Let’s check those wing tops again, since we’ve been sitting here awhile." 

Captain: (seemingly ignoring the copilot) 
"I think we get to go here in a minute." 

The final words of the copilot...just before the plane plunges into the Potomac River, is not a hint, not a suggestion, and not a’s a simple fact...and this time the captain acknowledges him. 

Copilot:Larry, we’re going down, Larry. 

Captain: I know it. 

Thankfully, in the past 15 years, commercial airlines have taken non-assertiveness seriously and instituted new training programs specifically designed to teach copilots to speak up and challenge a pilot when they think something is dangerous. They are required to seize control of the plane if the Captain ignores them. 

Airlines now typically split the flying duties equally between the captain and copilot. Research has shown that crashes are far more likely when the captain is in the 'flying seat'. Planes are safer when the less experienced pilot is flying, because it means the second pilot isn’t going to be afraid to speak up! 

So, how does this scenario relate to you, your life, and your work? 

Are you happy with your current level of assertiveness? If not, what will you do to improve it?  If you ARE happy with how assertive are you, are you confident that those who work with you will speak up if there is a crucial situation that needs strong action? 
If not, what can you do to support them? 

I wish you renewed courage and commitment to communicate clearly and assertively in 2010 and beyond. This one skill could make a dramatic difference in your life and work. 

Sally Mabelle, ‘The Voice of Leadership’ Specialist.  -  Inspiring clear, confident, and connected communication for personal and cultural transformation.