Study: Why We're So Wrong About How Others See Us at Work

Aug 8, 2014
13 Min Read

While we may believe that we seem to strike the right balance in our dealings with others at work, a new study suggests that we're often off base when it comes to judging how others see us. Why we must get a clearer view of ourselves or see our careers damaged because we make a poor impression.

In the workplace, it can be tough to find that middle ground between being pushy and being a pushover.

But you figure you do a pretty good job, right? Just the right amount of assertiveness so that you’re not a jerk or a wimp?

You may want to reconsider your belief as a new study shows that the majority of us are off base when it comes to judging how others view us. In the study, Daniel Ames, professor of management at Columbia Business School and doctoral student Abbie Wazlawek, found that:

  •  57% of those seen as not assertive enough believe they show just the right amount of feistiness – or maybe even too much.
  • 56% of those believed to be too bold by others thought they had just the right amount of can-do attitude or might even lack some.

“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.”

If you want to ensure that you’re not coming across as too abrasive or a cream puff, then that means you’ve got to be more aware of how others see you. In a recent interview with Anita Bruzzese, Ames discusses the findings and provides some insight into how to make attitude adjustments to save your career.

AB: Did the findings about how people are clueless about how others perceive them come as a surprise to you?

DA: We were surprised to find that people who were seen as getting it right often thought they were getting it wrong. A good share of negotiators seen by counterparts as appropriately assertive mistakenly thought they had crossed the line in their counterpart’s eyes, an effect we called the “line crossing illusion.” In our studies, some 30 to 40% of negotiators seen as appropriately assertive showed this illusion, double or triple the rate of people making the opposite error (coming across as appropriately assertive but mistakenly thinking they were seen as under-assertive).

AB:  Can you explain more about the “line crossing illusion?”

DA: Our research tried to trace back the “line crossing illusion” to some of its causes. Why would so many people make this self-derogating error? There are probably several factors behind this, but one that we examined was something we called “strategic umbrage.”

This is when a negotiation counterpart puts on a little drama in reaction to a proposal we might make. They might let out an exaggerated gasp of horror, stagger backwards with their hand over their heart, or just respond with a look of anguish as if we had violated all norms of decency.

Sometimes that means our offer really is outrageous. But other times, that’s just a gambit, a game played because the other person wants us to pay them more or charge them less. We found that the more a negotiator shows strategic umbrage, the more likely their counterpart is to fall prey to the line-crossing illusion. It may be just a negotiation ploy to get a slightly better deal, but people on the receiving end of these displays sometimes take them as a referendum on their character.

AB: How would you suggest people gauge accurately how they’re seen by others? Should they ask?

DA: Knowing what others think of us can be a real challenge. But it is a challenge worth addressing because self-awareness is important for good leadership and effective relationships.

Asking for another person’s take on you and your behavior can be useful, but you need to ask in the right way and at the right time. It may not be effective in the middle of a negotiation to ask, “Do you think I’m pushing too hard, or should I be asking for more?”

In an unfolding negotiation, if you sense your counterpart is reacting well to your overtures, you can probe for their take on your proposals. What do they regard as fair or appropriate? What comparables or benchmarks do they have in mind when making their judgments?

There are opportunities to discover what others think of your assertiveness outside of the context of a negotiation. Following up with a negotiation counterpart after some time has passed can give them a chance to voice reactions they wouldn’t tell you in the midst of dealmaking.

You can also create opportunities for feedback by roleplaying a negotiation with a trusted colleague. Even simulating the first few minutes of a negotiation can give them some grist for telling you what’s working and what you could do better.

AB:  What would be an example of how someone might see me as overly-assertive when I think I’m being appropriately assertive?

DA: Take the case of a freelance graphic designer negotiating the price on a potential project with a new client.

They may have worked with other clients in the past who haggled repeatedly over price. So their opening bid was 70% more than what they hoped to settle at, assuming the client would come back and lowball them, and they’d eventually arrive at the right number.

But the new client is not a haggler and instead is accustomed to getting a fair and final number right up front. As the negotiation opens, the freelancer might think they’re just playing the game appropriately, not causing any offense. The new client, on the other hand, is alarmed by the steep price, categorizes the freelancer as unreasonable, and politely winds down the conversation, saying they need to review the project scope.

The freelancer leaves thinking the client is wishy-washy or disorganized, not realizing that the new client has begun spreading the word to their business partners to avoid the “shark-like” freelancer.

AB: Can you give an example of how someone might perceive me as under-assertive even though I think I’m appropriately assertive?

DA: Take the case of negotiating a salary for a new job.

A new hire may feel relatively powerless and even somewhat anxious about making a good first impression. They do some research on average starting salaries for this line of work and ask for something right at the market number, proud of themselves for being appropriately bold.

But the hiring manager knows how desperate they are to fill this position because of business growth. They know their budget would allow them to go 20% higher. And they are prepared to pay a premium for the experience and skills this particular candidate brings. They hold back their smile at the candidate’s request and then propose a number that’s 5% lower than the candidate’s already unassertive offer.

The candidate accepts, feeling like they got a big win, not realizing that the hiring manager sees them as something of a charming pushover.

AB: What impact do you think these misperceptions could have on someone’s career success?

DA: As reflected in the examples noted above, people can chug along in their careers for quite some time without really knowing that others see them as a pushover or jerk.

Sometimes the costs are not immediate, other times they can be hard to see. But those costs are real and they can mount over time.

An over-assertive manager’s employee turnover might climb, those workers who do stay on could become less committed and spontaneously helpful, and eventually the business unit’s performance could suffer, curbing the manager’s likelihood of promotion (not to mention the quality of their relationships).

An under-assertive professional may not only fail to get the best salary or benefits for him or herself, he or she may fail to get the internal resources their work team needs, provoking turnover and lagging performance.

AB:  Have these findings made you re-evaluate how you see yourself in the assertiveness department or change how you behave?

DA: It’s had at least two effects on me personally. One is that I work a bit harder in interactions to gauge what my counterpart thinks of me and whatever we’re discussing. I don’t necessarily trust that I know how they see me, or that they see my behavior the same way I see it. With people I care about, I try to unpack their reactions and give them a chance to signal if I need to dial it back or if I have room to push further.

Second is that, when the stakes are high, I work harder in advance to set myself up to be appropriately assertive. That means learning about the issues at hand and my counterpart so I know what “too much” and “not enough” might be. It also means preparing to describe and defend my proposals so that, even if I’m asking for a lot, there is a logic behind the request rather than just “I want it all.”

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