MANY seemingly enlightened companies make substantial investments in people development. They send their employees for technical training, soft skills training and management training.

They believe in equipping their human assets with the skills and competency needed for success on the job, and are willing to spend money for it. If only that was enough.

You can spend a fortune on training and grooming management candidates for advancement. But no matter how skilled people are, they will not rise above the middle ranks of management unless they are also assertive.

Studies show that only 5 to 20 per cent of the population is assertive. Yet you will observe that nearly all top managers are assertive.

Why do so few employers send their new managers for assertiveness training?

Many view assertiveness as a personality trait that a fortunate few are either born with or develop during their formative years.

They assume people either are assertive or they are not. They do not see assertiveness as a skill that can be developed.

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is simply the ability to stand up for yourself without stepping on anyone else's toes.

It means communicating your interests in a manner that is clear, direct, specific and considerate. It is the "golden mean" between passive and aggressive.

If you cannot stand up for yourself, you are passive.

If you can stand up for yourself but disregard the rights and feelings of others, you may be aggressive.

Most people who take assertiveness training are passive rather than aggressive.

Passive people may have unsatisfactory and unbalanced relationships, without the give and take of healthy interpersonal relationships. They may regret their lack of assertiveness and resent others. They may also suffer from low self-esteem and depression.

Assertive people have positive self-esteem. They enjoy fulfilling relationships based on open communication and mutual respect.

They take responsibility for their feelings, statements and actions.

Assertive people stand up for themselves, exercising their rights while recognising the rights and opinions of others.

Assertiveness skills

There are three common skill sets that assertive people use:

1. The ability to say "no"

Many people find it difficult to turn down a request. There may be cultural norms at play here, but let's not blame culture entirely.

The fact is people often say "yes" when they want to say "no" because they do not want to offend the other person or seem disagreeable.

But the ability to say "no" helps you protect your most valuable commodity: time.

There are many ways to say "no" without causing offence, and they can be learnt and practised. For example, simply adding a reason to your refusal, or offering an alternative, can make your "no" more palatable.

2. The ability to ask

People often fail to ask for things they need or want because they do not want to trouble others, or appear incapable or demanding. Yet, they are entitled to many of these things they are reluctant to ask for.

Imagine a new manager being reluctant to ask for help or feeling too inhibited to delegate effectively.

He should learn how to ask without imposing by asking at a good time, being direct and smiling. Most importantly, he should frame his request from the other person's perspective, making it easy for the other party to say "yes".

3. The ability to craft assertive messages

There is more to assertiveness than being able to say "no" and making requests.

Suppose your boss does something you know is inappropriate. Will you speak out or ignore it?

The ability to stand up for yourself is useful in a wide range of situations.

In addition to learning to communicate assertively, you can learn to act assertively.

This involves eliminating unassertive behaviours, gestures and speech patterns and replacing them with assertive and confident ones.

Make an effort to stop passive behaviours such as avoiding eye contact, slouching, speaking too softly and being indecisive.

Avoid passive speech patterns such as rambling or making uncertain statements, frequent justifications or apologies and putting yourself down.

Adopt assertive behaviours such as maintaining good posture, looking people in the eye, moving with confidence and purpose and being decisive.

Speak with authority and at a relaxed pace, express your needs clearly and directly, and be considerate of others.

By treating assertiveness as a set of skills and behaviours that can be learnt, companies can help develop their managers to succeed at the highest levels of the organisation.