12/12/2014 06:37 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

Are You Being Too Assertive? Not Enough?

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Many people want to be more assertive in the workplace. Being assertive can help you voice your opinions to your coworkers, help you negotiate that promotion and pay raise, and also has a number of health benefits.

According to the Mayo Clinic, assertive behavior and communication can help with stress management and improve your coping skills. As the Mayo Clinic explains, being assertive shows that you respect yourself and you are willing to stand up and express your thoughts and feelings. It boosts your self-confidence and can improve your work satisfaction.

Many people want to be more assertive but suffer from being too passive, abandoning their good ideas or not voicing their opinions to avoid conflict with others.

In addition to the problem of being too passive, there is also the issue that others face of being overly assertive in the workplace. Just as passivity can have repercussions to being successful at work, so too can not knowing the right amount of assertiveness to employ.

In a series of studies published in 2007 by Daniel Ames, a professor at Columbia Business School, and Francis Flynn, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, research showed that what makes a good leader is the right amount of assertiveness.

The scientists asked workers their views of colleagues' leadership strengths and weaknesses. The research showed that the most common weakness described was the coworker's assertiveness. Half of the comments pointed to an issue with too much assertiveness and the other half described too little.

"Assertiveness dominated reports of leadership weaknesses, though it wasn't nearly as common in colleagues' comments about strengths," said Ames. "When leaders get assertiveness wrong, it's glaring and obvious, but when they get it right it seems to disappear."

Ames compares the right amount of assertiveness at work to the right amount of salt in a dish. "When there's too much or too little, it's hard to notice anything else, but when it's just right, you notice the other flavors," said Ames.

But just how hard is it to get the right amount? That perfect level of assertiveness. As the science shows, it is much harder than we might think.

In a new study conducted by Ames with fellow researcher Abbie Wazlawek, a doctoral student at Columbia Business School, there is one major problem standing in the way of workers finding that right level of assertiveness. That obstacle is their own self-awareness.

Unlike a chef who can tell if she under seasoned or over salted a dish, many people are absolutely oblivious to how assertive they come across to colleagues.

In the study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in June of this year, researchers found that there is a huge disconnect between how assertive someone thinks they are and how assertive their colleagues view them to be.

The investigators conducted a series of four studies to test the connection (or dis-connection) between assertiveness and self-awareness. Three of the four studies involved mock negotiations with MBA students enrolled in a negotiation course at Columbia Business School, and the fourth study was an online survey of 500 US adults.

In the first three studies, the MBA students were paired up to do a mock negotiation over licensing rights, after which each participant answered questions about their own assertiveness and the assertiveness of their counterpart. The negotiators were also asked to guess what their counterpart said about their assertiveness.

The results of the studies showed a major disconnect between people's self-awareness of their assertiveness and what others thought of them:

  • 57 percent of people who were viewed by their counterparts as being under-assertive thought that they were the right level of assertiveness or even too assertive.
  • 56 percent of people who were viewed as being over-assertive by their counterpart thought they came across as appropriately assertive or even under-assertive.

The results indicate that at work many people worry that they are coming across as a jerk, fearing that they are too assertive when their colleagues believe, in fact, that they are not assertive enough. Then there are the employees that are seen as jerks by their coworkers because they are being too pushy, when they judge their actions as reflecting the right level of assertiveness.

The study also showed that many people who were getting assertiveness right actually mistakenly viewed themselves as pushing too hard and felt that they had crossed a line during negotiation. As Ames and Wazlawek explained, those who mistakenly thought that they transgressed this line attempted to make up for their over assertiveness and agreed to less desired terms in an attempt to smooth things over.

All of this research indicates that getting to that perfect level of assertiveness is definitely important to a successful and satisfying career and that one of the biggest barriers is the individual's own self-awareness.

Most employees are just unsure about how assertive they are actually coming across. But the research strongly suggests that if you want to season your behavior with just the right amount of assertiveness, you can't rely on your own palate, it is important to let others taste test your behavior.

As Ames explains, "We often find that students and executive are unaware of how other people see their behavior. One reason is because people typically don't get candid feedback on things like assertiveness." But this poses problems as Ames adds, "Who wants to tell the overbearing boss that he or she is a jerk?"

Adoree Durayappah-Harrison is a graduate of three masters programs, one in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania researching character strengths, goal achievement, and human flourishing; another from Harvard University studying Buddhist practices of the cultivation of both body and mind; and the third, an M.B.A. from Pepperdine University. She writes about health, psychology, and well being.