A decade ago, a graduate student at MIT invented a device he called the Jerk-O-Meter. The device attached to a phone and read vocal inflection and verbal cues to diagnose jerkiness. Of course, as Professor Daniel Ames points out, most people don’t need a device to tell them when others are being jerks, and indeed, the Jerk-O-Meter told users when they themselves, not the person on the other end of the line, were being jerks.
Aside from the question of whether sharing objective proof of a person’s jerkiness is commercially viable — the Jerk-O-Meter was never mass-produced — it does highlight the balancing act people constantly face. “Having the right touch is critical to be effective in social life and organizational life — asserting ourselves enough so that we get our way but not so much that we drive people away from us,” Ames says. “It’s an important leadership skill. And when we ask co-workers what a given manager or leader is doing wrong, what she or he needs to work on, one of the most common things they say is that this person is getting this balancing act wrong by pushing too hard or not pushing hard enough.”
In new research, Ames and doctoral student Abbie Wazlawek ask the question: do people know when they’re coming off as too assertive — or not assertive enough? Psychologists call this meta-perception: do we know what others think of us? Ames and Wazlawek find that, for the most part, our meta-perceptions for our assertiveness are not very reliable. In a first study, hundreds of young professionals were randomly paired in a negotiation role-play, and afterward rated their own and their counterpart’s assertiveness. “Most people thought they were doing OK,” Ames says. “Pushovers thought they were pushing about as hard as they could, and very assertive people thought they were pushing just right.” These mistaken meta-perceptions are understandable, he points out. “People laugh at our unfunny jokes and are polite about our weaknesses. The signals they send are faint or imperfect or even misleading. That makes it hard to know what others really think of what we’re doing.”
While the team expected this initial result, they didn’t anticipate the prevalence of a previously unstudied effect they called strategic umbrage. Some people whose counterparts reported them as pushing just about right actually reported thinking they themselves had pushed too hard or asked for too much. When this happened, the researchers found, those counterparts were signaling displeasure with those just-about-right negotiators. “Some people would put on a little drama.” Ames explains. “Maybe their counterpart asked for something, and they threw their hands up with a look a of shock.” Many people read this drama not as a deliberate expression of strategic umbrage but instead as a referendum on their assertiveness; and even though they’re getting assertiveness right, they think they are getting it wrong by pushing too hard. The researchers called this mistaken assumption about going too far the line-crossing illusion.
The team speculated that it might be common for these dramas to get played out in negotiations, and that many people were, perhaps, paying too much attention to the show. To learn if the connection between strategic umbrage and the line-crossing illusion was as direct as it appeared, in their next study the researchers asked hundreds of participants about their most recent face-to-face negotiation, which ranged from parents haggling with children over completing homework to fairly complex business deals.
Eighty percent of participants reported that they had intentionally engaged in overly dramatic displays during negotiations, and another 80 percent reported that they had been on the receiving end of such displays, so the researchers had proof that the tactic was common. The team ran another round of negotiation role-plays in which participants reported on whether they or a counterpart used these displays and, again, whether subjects thought they’d struck a balance with their own assertiveness. They found that the more someone displayed strategic umbrage, the more their counterpart was likely to show the line-crossing illusion.
That implies that strategic umbrage could be a valuable tool for negotiators if it causes a counterpart to back off their initial asks and offers. But the results of the team’s final study show why it’s a tool that should be used with care. In this study, participants conducted a multi-round negotiation. There were many possible successful deals participants could make — outcomes that would effectively be win-win — but only one deal returned the most value for both sides. Ames explains that in many cases, participants incorrectly believed they had crossed a line in the first negotiation, so when the next round came up, they looked for the first acceptable deal they could say yes to — a “good-enough” win — rather than trying to find the best possible deal. Among negotiators who were seen as appropriately assertive and who were also self-aware, over 80 percent ended up negotiating the optimal deal that returned the greatest possible value to both parties. Among negotiators who were seen as appropriately assertive but who showed the line-crossing illusion — that is, they lacked awareness and mistakenly thought they were seen as pushing too hard — only 40 percent reached the optimal deal.
“Some people tried to fix something that was never broken,” Ames says. “It’s an ironic effect. In their unnecessary attempt to repair the relationship, they ended up striking a bargain that actually left value on the table for both sides.”
Daniel Ames is the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School.
Read the Research
Ames, Daniel, and Abbie Wazlawek. “Pushing in the Dark: Causes and Consequences of Limited Self-Awareness for Interpersonal Assertiveness.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40, no. 6 (2014): 775-779.