It’s not easy to understand how other people perceive us. We are often uncertain, confused, or even completely unaware of what we project. Most of us suffer from ‘transparency illusion’ — the belief that we’re an open book and that what we intend to project is what people see. But typically there’s a gap between how people perceive us and how we would want to be perceived. This lack of self-awareness can also be career-limiting.
Even knowing, that most of us don’t clearly project what we intend to, doesn’t stop us from confidently forming impressions based on the impact we feel. And in organizations, these impressions are often crowdsourced, giving rise to a common narrative. These narratives may then get shared as advice or spread as malicious gossip.
Tapping into this collective impression can give us valuable information about what’s working for us and where we may need to adjust our style. Even though we get frequent feedback at work, it’s typically about our functional performance. One may be told that their sales skills need sharpening, but not that people see them as self-interested. To understand how one is perceived at work you may follow this four-step process:
- Select five people. Choose colleagues who see you repeatedly in relevant work situations: bosses, executives, direct reports, peers, or even former colleagues. Influential co-workers, who have their ears to the ground, make great sources. If they know you in more than one aspect of your work or life, even better! While it’s important that you have trusted people in the group, make sure to choose people who will tell it to you straight.
- Ask for a face-to-face meeting. Make the request in person if you can, as people are more likely to consent to participate if they can see you. Be clear that you’ll keep whatever the person tells you confidential, this will encourage honesty, and that you’ll be collecting feedback from several people to find themes, this will lessen the burden for any one individual.
- Ask two questions. In the meetings, ask these two simple questions designed to tap into the collective wisdom:
- What’s the general perception of me?
- What could I do differently that would have the greatest impact on my success?
Depending on the person, you’ll hear responses ranging from eye-opening and helpful to vague and confusing. If the person is uncomfortable, they may rely on job or project specific feedback. In that case, clarify:
I appreciate that feedback. May I go up a level now and ask about the general perception of me as a leader/colleague/person?
- Manage your reaction. Resist the temptation to explain yourself, defend your actions, or reveal disappointment. Your interviewees will be looking to see what effect their feedback has on you in real time. The quality of their feedback will only be as good as your ability to remain comfortable while receiving it. Ask for details or examples, if you need them, and end with a sincere thank you.
When you’ve finished the interviews, look for themes and repetitive points. If the perceptions about you are in line with what you intend, great. If not, it’s time to change your behavior and begin to shift/shape perception. You may need to adjust your style, keep a neutral facial expression that connotes openness, and/or state your intentions up front, to foster transparency and to be able to change perceptions.
The transparency illusion is a common trap for managers at all levels. Fortunately, it’s possible to close the gap between how people perceive you and how you want to be perceived. Gather reliable information and then make a commitment to change. The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes, that by utilizing the aforementioned four-step process, one can identify how they are perceived and work towards changing, if at all required, the perceptions about themselves.