Pushy or Pushover? Striking Right Balance Tricky

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 29, 2014

Negotiations are a constant in people’s lives—family members negotiating over whose turn it is to host Thanksgiving dinner, an HR professional dealing with vendors, a job candidate bargaining over salary and benefits, or a tourist haggling with a merchant at a market.

Do you know when you’re seen as a jerk or a pushover, a bully or a doormat by the person on the other side of the ‘bargaining table’? Do you know when others view you as displaying the right touch? Just how hard should you push to get your way?

Those are questions Daniel R. Ames, associate professor of management at Columbia Business School, and Abbie S. Wazlawek, a Columbia doctoral student in management, considered for their paper, “Pushing in the Dark,” published online in February 2014 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“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,” Ames said in a news release. “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.”

Pushing harder to win a negotiation can bring rewards, but it also creates conflict and, beyond a certain level, it “can entail mounting social costs,” Ames and Wazlawek write. Many people struggle to find the right balance, Ames told HR News.

A manager of a workgroup deliberating with fellow managers about how to divide the company’s limited resources could be seen as crossing the line if that manager requests double the amount that workgroup received in the past.

“Fiercely pursing those resources could lead to frayed relationships, distrust and unconstructive conflict,” Ames said in an e-mail.

Some people don’t care about the social costs, though, if it means they win.

“Highly assertive people may recognize that others see them as pushing too hard—they may care more about winning than making others feel good. Likewise, very unassertive people may know that others see them as giving in too easily, but nonetheless choose to act that way because they think it yields the outcomes they desire or avoids results they abhor,” Ames and Wazlawek point out in the paper.

Their research found that many people who mistakenly thought they came off as pushing too hard were seen by the other party as striking the right tone in negotiations.

During a negotiation, for example, it’s not unusual
for one party to give the impression that the other person is asking for too much or too little. Taking that reaction at face value can result in the second person agreeing to a less valuable deal to smooth things over–“pushing in the dark,” as the researchers term it. The result is that both sides frequently lose out on what could have been a better deal.

For example, an employee asks for and receives time off but worries that she’s “crossed the line” with her request. Some time later, the same employee asks for a raise and the manager gives a tiny increase; the employee worries that it isn’t bigger because she was too pushy about taking time off. She ends the conversation before learning that the company needs help with a special project that could have resulted in overtime pay.

Both sides “end up worse than they could have been because the employee … took the fastest way out of the conversation, unnecessarily worried [she] was on the manager’s bad side.”

“People can have a hard time knowing what the people around them think of them” and end up “pushing in the dark,” Ames explained.

How can HR professionals and others know if they are striking the right chord—whether in hiring situations, working with vendors or the everyday negotiations of the workplace?

“You have to learn not to take your counterpart’s actions at face value,” Wazlawek told HR News. “If we want to know if we’re striking the right chord [then we need] to check in with the people around us. It highlights the importance of feedback.”

Their research is based on four separate studies conducted from 2011 through 2013, three of which involved master’s of business administration students enrolled in negotiation courses.

One study involved 338 randomly paired students who had to reach a deal within 20 minutes. Another involved 172 randomly paired students engaging in a one-on-one negotiation, each observed by another pair of buyer/sellers assigned the same mock deal. The observers rated their own assertiveness in the deal and that of the pair they were assigned to view.

A third study involved 78 randomly paired students hammering out a deal via e-mail within a week.
A fourth involved an online survey of 506 U.S. adults describing a negotiation they had been involved in and rating the assertiveness of themselves and the other party.

A key question the researchers looked at across all these studies was whether people knew what their counterparts thought of their negotiating style.

Among their findings: More than half of people thought they had come across as appropriately assertive or overassertive, but that their negotiating counterpart saw them as underassertive. More than half thought they had come across as appropriately assertive or even underassertive, but that their counterpart saw them as overassertive.

There were no perceivable differences between men and women as to how their assertiveness was regarded, according to Wazlawek. What the findings do suggest, the researchers noted, is that it’s a toss-up as to whether someone recognizes how others perceive their assertiveness. “Most people can think of someone who is a jerk or a pushover and [is] largely clueless about how they’re seen,” Ames stated. “Sadly, our results suggest that, often enough, that clueless jerk or pushover is us.”

Successfully handling conflict and effectively asserting one’s self rests, in part, on reading people well, he said in a 2011 YouTube faculty profile video.

“When people assert themselves too much or too little,” he said, “often what’s at the heart of that is an inability to understand what the people around us are thinking, wanting or feeling.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.

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