Woman in a boxing gym sitting down and looking dejected

Study shows people have no idea when colleagues think they’re jerks

Elizabeth Bromstein|

Do your co-workers think you’re a jerk?

“Of course not,” you’re thinking. “I’m awesome. And I would totally know if people didn’t like me, because I am also very perceptive.”

Science says you might be wrong about that.

Research from Columbia University Business School finds that people have no idea how others see their assertiveness.

In four studies, Daniel Ames and Abbie Wazlawek found that a majority of people who were seen as over-assertive thought they were either just assertive enough, while those seen as under-assertive thought they were over-assertive.

Why does this matter? Because another word for “over-assertive” is “pushy,” and people don’t like pushy.

Ames, a professor of management at Columbia Business School, said, “Finding the middle ground between being pushy and being a pushover is a basic challenge in social life and the workplace. We’ve now found that the challenge is compounded by the fact that people often don’t know how others see their assertiveness.

“In the language of Goldilocks, many people are serving up porridge that others see as too hot or too cold, but they mistakenly think the temperature comes across as just right—that their assertiveness is seen as appropriate. To our surprise, we also found that many people whose porridge was actually seen as just right mistakenly thought their porridge came off as too hot. That is, they were asserting themselves appropriately in the eyes of others, but they incorrectly thought they were pushing too hard.”

So, that’s a pretty drawn-out porridge analogy. Anyway…

The study is called, “Pushing in the Dark: Causes and Consequences of Limited Self-Awareness for Interpersonal Assertiveness” and will be published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin this month.

Subjects were paired up for mock negotiations then asked to rate each other and themselves on assertiveness, and to guess what their partner said about them.

The Results

    57 percent of people seen as under–assertive thought they had come across as appropriately assertive or even over–assertive.

    56 percent of people seen as over–assertive thought they had come across as appropriately assertive or even under–assertive.

The corresponding press release points to the example of Jill Abramson, who was recently let go from her position as the executive editor of The New York Times for being, among other things, too “pushy.”

“Most people can think of someone who is a jerk or a pushover and largely clueless about how they’re seen,” said Ames. “Sadly, our results suggest that, often enough, that clueless jerk or pushover is us.”

On the other hand, if you’re under-assertive, you’re not likely to accomplish your goal.

So, the ideal, one assumes, is to be assertive without being pushy (or annoying or rude). To do this in debate, keep the following in mind:

    Find a common goal: If you can convince your opponent that you both want the same things, they’ll be more adaptable to your point of view.

    Listen first, talk second: Your opponent will appreciate feeling as though they are being heard. Also, hearing what they have to say helps build your argument.

    Say “yes and…” rather than “yes but…”: Whenever possible, phrase your arguments as agreements upon which you are building rather than blocks you are placing in your opponent’s path. Never say “no,” outright if you can avoid it.

    Avoid combative language: Don’t fight. Maintain positive language and never dismiss anyone’s ideas as “stupid” for example.

To be assertive without being pushy in the job search (since that’s why a lot of you are on this site):

Be enthusiastic: Make it clear that you are interested in whatever position you are applying for, that you have done your research and have learned all you can about the role and the company. Show your enthusiasm by being prepared.

Ask for the job in the interview: We’ve talked about this before. You have to ask for it. Say, “I just want you to know that I am very interested in this position and that I am ready to hit the ground running.”

Follow up: Send a thank you note and reiterate your interest.

Then you have to back off. Calling every day to check if they’ve made a decision is pushy.

Hopefully you’ve been just assertive enough.


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