Google the phrase “assertiveness training” and over 700,000 possibilities will pop up. Thanks to Sheryl Sandberg, “lean in” is the new mantra for women—and judging from the search options, it appears that every second person is either worrying about being a doormat, or working as a life coach.

We take it as truth that how assertive or unassertive we are affects every aspect of our lives, including work and relationships. Culturally, we link assertiveness to success, leadership, and getting ahead, but still, there’s ambivalence: Look up “assertive” in the dictionary and you’ll see its synonym is “aggressive.”

The Pros and Cons of Being Pushy

It’s true that there are plenty of pushovers out there. People are unassertive for different reasons—there are Pleasers, Peacemakers, Abnegators, Avoidants, Appeasers, and Passive Pauls and Pollys, to use my own thoroughly unscientific labels, though I think you’ll recognize the types. We’ve all had the experience of having people wimp out on us when we counted on their support, leaving us squarely in the path of a bulldozer.

But most of us have also seen firsthand what assertiveness run amok can do to collaboration or teamwork; a relationship or marriage; the atmosphere in a classroom, office, or dinner party; or any give-and-take or negotiation. That’s where our ambivalence comes in: When does a push become a shove? When does bold and confident cross the line into bully in the china shop (or workplace or living room)?

People tend to think that highly assertive people are less friendly, less likeable, and more self-involved than others—and sometimes they are. In real life, people who push too hard and never seem to know when to stop often alienate the rest of us, regardless of how assertive we might be ourselves.

So, what’s the deal? Is assertiveness really a good thing or does it need to be kept in check? Does a good leader have to be highly assertive? What makes one individual naturally more assertive—no training necessary—than another? And, finally, how good are we at assessing whether we ourselves are too assertive, not assertive, or just right?

Before you sign up for that assertiveness class, it’s worth seeing what the research shows.

The work of Daniel Ames, a social psychologist at Columbia’s School of Business, and his colleagues has focused on assertiveness and much of what they've discovered is downright revelatory. Following are some questions and answers that may make you rethink what you thought you knew about assertiveness:

Do very assertive people make better leaders?

What makes an effective leader? Is it a high amount of assertiveness—the ability to put deeply-held opinions out there and dominate the conversation? Is it a low level of assertiveness and a talent for getting people to cooperate? Research by Ames, alone and in conjunction with Francis Flynn, suggests that the answer is: Neither. 

Imagine a continuum of assertiveness with the avoidants and the passives on one end, and the aggressive types on the other. For example, when it comes to negotiation, you'd have “weak opening and ready concessions” on the passive end, and an “extreme opening and aggressive tactics” on the highly assertive end. In the middle, though, you have the Goldilocks ("just right") solution: “A strong opening and integrative solutions.” Ames posits that the benefits of assertiveness, when charted, aren’t linear but more like an upside-down U. Behaviors associated with too little and too much assertiveness have clear downsides in the eyes of the beholder. When it comes to decision-making, the same pattern emerges: Unassertive types come across as “equivocal and indecisive” while front-office bulls are seen as “unilateral and self-serving.”

The “just right” position, in contrast, is seen as “proactive and inclusive.” This suggests that the most effective leaders and managers (and maybe partners and spouses as well) are those who adopt assertive behaviors that are “just right,” and not the take-no-prisoners heavy hitters of anecdotal lore. 

What makes people pushy?

Thinking off-the-cuff, I think most of us would agree with what psychological literature has suggested in the past: That pushy people care more about winning than they do about maintaining relationships, while less assertive types put a greater value on getting along and being liked. But Ames’ research suggests values aren’t the only factor—it’s what individuals expect to happen as a result of their behavior. As Ames writes, "[S]ometimes tough people are tough because they can be, and soft people are soft because they believe that they should be.”

In one scenario Ames used to the heart of the matter—consider how you would respond in the same situation—he asked subjects to react to a salary negotiation. An offer is made over the phone by a manager. Assume that this is job you want but the offer—$92,000—is less than you expected. You know that people in similar positions make $110,000 to $120,000, and you assume there’s room to negotiate. Do you:

  1. Counteroffer with $120,000?
  2. Counteroffer with $105,000?
  3. Accept the offer?

The participants were all MBA candidates asked to rate the expected social outcomes of all three options—“How much would the manager like, trust, or want to interact with you in the future?"—along with the expected instrumental outcomes—“How well do you think you’d do in this negotiation?” Participants were also tested for how much they valued social outcomes over instrumental ones.

It turned out that the pushiest, the most assertive people went with choice #1—the top-dollar counter-offer—and were the most optimistic that the strategy would work, both in terms of social and instrumental outcomes. (For the record, I’m pretty sure I’d choose #2.)

Ames explains in an email that “difference in assertiveness can be traced partly to ‘working models’ people have about what other people are like.” It may well be that really pushy individuals have high enough self-esteem that they figure they’d still be likeable no matter how they act. Passive Pollys and Pauls, on the other hand, may focus what might happen if they push too hard—the withdrawal of the offer, perhaps, or someone not liking them—and that keeps them acting as they do.

Do people know how assertive they appear to others?

The short answer is “No.” Both older research and newer work confirms that, generally, an individual’s perception of how others see him or her is pretty darn limited (the fancy name for this ability is meta-perception or meta-insight). I’ve already detailed in other posts what humans are notoriously lousy at—predicting their future reactions, knowing what will make them happy, assessing how “above average” they are, and more —and meta-perception is another one to put on the list. Mostly, people attribute how they see themselves to other people; so, if I think I’m not too pushy, I’m probably going to think you will agree with me. Put bluntly, the obnoxiously pushy jerk thinks you think he’s right on the mark, and the poor wimp doesn’t know you’re chortling at what a doormat he is. But, as Daniel Ames and Abbie Wazlawek discovered, while that’s true enough, it’s not all that’s going on. There are, it turns out, degrees of cluelessness. 

Their research confirmed that people were, in fact, as clueless about how other people assessed their assertiveness as earlier research suggested but they also discovered a new wrinkle which they called the line crossing illusion. They discovered that folks who were actually seen by their cohorts as appropriately assertive nonetheless tended to feel that they’d somehow “crossed a line” and came across as too pushy.

Ames and Wazlawek had pairs of students participate in a negotiation after rating both their own assertiveness and their partners’ on a five-point scale (“very under-assertive,” “somewhat under-assertive,” “appropriately assertive,” “somewhat over-assertive,” “very over-assertive.”) 

Here are the results: Of those rated by their partners as under-assertive, 67 percent rated themselves as either appropriately assertive or over-assertive! 64 percent of those deemed to be over-assertive saw themselves as either appropriately assertive or under-assertive! Most important, opinions of self and onlookers only agreed 51 percent of the time!  But that wasn’t all the researchers noticed: it turns out 38 percent of those whose partners thought well of their behavior nonetheless were sure that they’d somehow crossed the line.. Why was that? Further research revealed that the partner’s verbal and non-verbal behaviors —rolling of the eyes or saying “you’ve got to be kidding”— affected the individual’s perception of his or her performance. They termed these behaviors strategic umbrage, and they apparently can make someone who’s behaved reasonably feel like the proverbial bull in the china shop.

So, what are the life lessons here? First of all, don’t rely on your own perception of how assertive or unassertive you are; it’s not likely to be accurate. Second, if you’re beginning to notice that how you’re acting is having real social costs, pay attention. If you’re hearing criticism from people you trust —managers or others who have your best interests in mind —be open to it. As Dr. Ames notes, “We’re finding that highly assertive people tend not to receive as much feedback on their need to chill out as under-assertive people receive about their need to toughen up.” Even so, both types may have trouble hearing the truth. Finally, there’s the big takeaway, in Dr. Ames’ words: “One of the great challenges in social life is pushing hard enough to get one’s way but not so hard that we fail to get along with the people around us.”

Try to keep that in mind. And if you’re not convinced, just read Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs

Copyright © Peg Streep 2014


READ MY NEW BOOK: Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work

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Ames. Daniel R. and Francis J. Flynn, “What Breaks A Leader: The Curvilinear Relation Between Assertiveness and Leadership,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2007), vol.82, no.2: 307-324.

Ames, Daniel R. “Assertiveness Expectancies: How Hard People Push Depends on the Consequences They Predict,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2008), vol. 95, no.6: 1541-1557.

Ames, Daniel, “Pushing Up to A Point: Assertiveness and Effectiveness in Leadership and Interpersonal Dynamics,” Research in Organizational Behavior (2009), 29, 111-133.

Ames, Daniel R. and  Abbie S. Wazlawek. “Pushing in the Dark: Causes and Consequence of Limited Self-Awareness for Interpersonal Assertiveness,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (28 February 2014) DOI:10.1177/0146167214525474

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