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Being diplomatic without sacrificing the message.

Q My manager has told me that I am too assertive and that I border on being aggressive. She said that I need to be more diplomatic. I am very effective in getting positive outcomes from my team. How can I be more diplomatic (and, therefore, less assertive and aggressive) without sacrificing the message? I asked my manager this question, and she said, "Just try harder."


A Good communications skills are essential for the successful manager. You must be able to get your message across and empower the receivers. You also need to be diplomatic. Deliver your message in a manner that honors the person receiving it. Honoring means being sensitive that you are dealing with a person that someone loves (e.g., someone's mother, father, son, or daughter). It does not mean that you have to like the person.

Alton Sturtevant points out, "It sounds like you may have a 'dominant' personality trait as defined by some trait-evaluation models. The owner of this trait tends to be very straightforward with little or no sugar coating applied when approaching most situations. I am one of these types and tend to get right to the point. Our interactions tend to skip pleasantries in conversation. We are not malicious, just to the point. This does come across as being pushy or aggressive. I have been 'trying harder' for 30 years as a manager. One thing that helped me was a one-day training course our lab conducted. The purpose of the training was to recognize the management/personality traits of each manager and supervisor. The managers were tested using the trait test, which categorized us into one of four types: dominant, influencer, steadiness, and conscientious. The training helped us to recognize our own traits, as well as those of our fellow employees. We also learned how each of the four types best receives incentives and disincentives to perform. The study sessions involved group discussion and case studies to help us learn this valuable management tool."

Dr. Sturtevant adds, "Perhaps you should suggest training along these lines to your manager to help you and your fellow workers. If training is not available through your institution, you should avail yourself of it on your own time and expense to polish your management skills. This will make you a better manager and person, and will pay off in promotions and satisfaction."

According to Larry Crolla, "Since I do not know your style of business, I will guess and say that being more diplomatic may mean being more participative in your approach to your team. Instead of saying this is the way I want it done, you can ask for suggestions on how to accomplish a certain task or project. Also stand back and review your actions after a meeting (e.g., analyze your gestures, actions, and speech to see if they were aggressive). You may have to practice toning down your assertiveness and give others a chance to participate. You will find the truth of your actions from this personal analysis, if you do it honestly."

Marti Bailey points out, "Simply put, diplomacy is the verbal art of pleasing--or at least staying on good terms with--most people most of the time. This does not mean misrepresenting the truth in order to keep people happy. But it does mean communicating in such a way that people feel like their interaction with you has been respectful and positive. The word 'verbal' in the definition clearly conveys that communication is basic to diplomacy. With this in mind, you might think of diplomacy as the packaging for what you need to communicate. Your manager is not alone in expecting more than just positive outcomes. The road leading to the positive outcome is just as important as the outcome itself. I believe your manager is asking you to build and maintain positive relationships with your staff. Like it or not, it is not enough to be skilled at everything except relationships. When your boss uses terms such as 'too assertive and aggressive' to describe you, I would take this very much to heart. I think she is looking for a softer, kinder you that still gets the effective outcomes needed. Learning diplomacy skills will be beneficial not only in the short term but also for preparing you to move to the next level--if, indeed, you are interested in advancement.

"So, how do you go about developing diplomacy skills? I suggest you begin by realizing that working around, over, or through people to get things done is no longer state of the art. Instead, you need to work with people, letting them participate in the problem-solving process, helping them to understand the viewpoints of others, and moving them toward common ground so that everyone can buy into the solution. Diplomacy requires treating people with utmost respect. This can only be accomplished by mastering tact. Tactful people do and say things kindly so that no one is offended. But tact is not just saying things the right way. It is also practicing the right behaviors. You can start yourself on the way to becoming a tactful person by practicing the following: (1,2)

* Get to know your staff and the jobs they are doing. Know their strengths and weaknesses. Build on their strengths and help them grow to overcome their weaknesses.

* Be a team player. Help others who need assistance. Make sure credit goes to everyone who deserves it.

* Be open to new ideas. Manipulating people or simply using the authority of your position to get them to accept your point of view may achieve the end result but will not build trust and understanding.

* Avoid spreading gossip and negativity. Never send an e-mail to anyone that you would not send to everyone.

* Do not criticize publicly. This is never acceptable.

* Work through the chain of command. Always keep your boss informed. Do not solve important problems in a vacuum.

* Use humor liberally to soften your image, but never make light at someone else's expense. Making fun of yourself occasionally makes it a lot easier for people to warm up to you."

Bottom line. There will be a direct correlation between the investment you make in building relationships with your staff and your diplomacy skill level. Building these relationships will take time. Do not ever consider being diplomatic a sign of weakness. Becoming an office diplomat can add a whole new dimension to your performance and effectiveness as a manager. Always show respect for the other person when you talk with them, no matter what the message is.


1. Accountemps. Practicing Diplomacy in the Workplace. Available at:

2. London, Manuel: Principled leadership and business diplomacy. Journal of Management Development. 1999; 18(2):170-192.

Edited by Christopher S. Frings, PhD, CSP

MLO's Management Q & A department provides practical, up-to-date solutions to readers' management issues from a panel of laboratory management experts. Readers may send questions to Dr. Chris Frings at 633 Winwood Drive, Birmingham, AL 35226; fax, (205) 823-4283; or e-mail, The following panel of laboratory directors, managers and supervisory technologists have provided their input in the answers given in this column: Marti K. Bailey, MT(ASCP), Work Unit Leader, Pathology, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Hershey, PA; Lawrence J. Crolla, PhD, Consulting Clinical Chemist, Departments of Pathology and Respiratory Care, Alexian Brothers Hospital, Elk Grove Village, IL, West Suburban Medical Center, Oak Park, IL and Northwest Community Hospital, Arlington Heights, IL; and Alton Sturtevant, PhD, Vice President and General Manager, LabCorp, Birmingham, AL.
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Title Annotation:Addressing Management Issues
Author:Frings, Christopher S.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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