July 1, 2014 at 11:53 AM ET
Are you a jerk at work? Chances are you have no idea.
A study by Columbia Business School published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found a disparity between how individuals view themselves and how others view them in work-type settings.
People who were seen as too pushy – or on the flip side, not assertive enough – often thought they were getting things just right, said researcher and co-author Daniel Ames. At the same time, people who actually were getting it right sometimes thought they were coming across as pushy.
"One of the things we were surprised by were a lot of people who were actually doing fine, but think they're pushing too hard in negotiation," Ames said.
Those people were picking up on discontented cues from others and then judging themselves as too assertive – what the researchers called a “line-crossing illusion.”
But a sigh or grumbly response from a counterpart isn’t always a sign you’re a workplace jerk, says Ames.
To investigate people’s perceptions of their own assertiveness, the researchers conducted four studies. Three paired MBA students with counterparts for a mock negation, which each participant then reviewed for levels of assertiveness. The fourth study was an online survey that asked 500 U.S. adults to describe elements of their real-world negotiations.
Professionals should pay attention to the right kind of signals and be more skeptical of the wrong signals, like a dramatic exasperation to a request.
“Some of that is just inevitable deal-making tactics that are more common in some cultures than others,” he said.
His other advice: Cultivate relationships with a few trusted colleagues — peers or mentors — who can be frank with you about your performance.
“The idea here isn’t to be friends with everybody. There’s value in knowing what other people think of you if you’re trying to influence, persuade and lead them,” Ames said.
While previous research has found notable gaps between perceptions of assertiveness by male and female employees, Ames said there wasn't any difference in his experiment.
The gender imbalance gained substantial media attention when Jill Abramson's abrupt dismissal as executive editor of The New York Times was attributed partially by anonymous sources to her "pushy" management style.
“When [women] get it wrong, there’s a lot of backlash against them — women have to walk a finer line. Both men and women have to deal with a balancing act, but for women it might be a bit more precarious,” Ames said.
Ultimately, the farther you climb, the more the spotlight is on you, so Ames suggests that professionals never stop learning: role play, attend a workshop or read a book.
“If you're getting it right, that gives you a leg up,” he said.