How Are You Perceived at Work? Here’s an Exercise to Find Out

by Kristi Hedge, December 19, 2017 How Are You Perceived at Work?

It’s not easy to understand how other people perceive us. We are often uncertain, confused, or even completely unaware of what we project. And this lack of self-awareness can be career-limiting.

Consider a former client of mine who was angling for the C-suite but had received feedback that his colleagues considered him negative and difficult. He was stunned; he thought of himself as analytical and thorough and assumed everyone understood that he pushed back in order to get to the best answer. He was also unaware that he had a habit of grimacing while processing information, which looked to others like annoyance.

My client was suffering from what psychologists call the transparency illusion — the belief that we’re all open books and that what we intend is what people see. But there can be a wide gap between intent and impact. People are often unaware of their facial expressions, especially when deep in thought. (As a colleague of mine says, “Thinking faces aren’t pretty.”) And particular emotions can be confusing to interpret. Frustration and slight discomfort, for example, can easily be mistaken for each another.

Knowing that most of us don’t clearly project what we intend doesn’t stop us from confidently forming impressions based on the impact we feel. And in organizations, these impressions are often crowdsourced (a kind of offline Yelp for people) and a common narrative can emerge. These narratives get shared as advice (Just started reporting to Ana? Here’s the best way to work with her) or spread as malicious gossip (Claude’s jockeying for power again).

Tapping into this collective impression can give us valuable information what’s working for us and where we may need to adjust our style. Even if we get frequent feedback at work, it’s typically about our functional performance. You may be told that your sales skills need sharpening, but not that people see you as self-interested. Which one has more of an impact on your career?

In The Power of Presence, I outline a straightforward presence audit to determine how others perceive you. It only takes a couple well-worded questions to a few key people to get the information you need. (If you’ve ever conducted a 360 evaluation, you’ve seen how quickly impressions start repeating.)

While this exercise won’t take a lot of time, it may be psychically intensive. So keep in mind that there’s never a comfortable time to do this and assume now is the exact right time.

Use this process as a guide:

  • 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 your group, make sure to choose people who will tell it to you straight.
  • Ask for a face-to-face meeting. Be clear that you’ll keep whatever the person tells you confidential, which will encourage honesty, and that you’ll be collecting feedback from several people to find themes, which lessens the burden for any one individual. Make the request in person if you can. People are more likely to consent to participate if they can see you. A phone call can work too if you can’t be physically in front of someone. If you have to make the request via email, offer to answer any questions ahead of the meeting.
  • Ask two questions. In the meeting, ask these two simple questions designed to tap into the collective wisdom:
  1. What’s the general perception of me?
  2. 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 your 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 (it’s OK to shed outliers as long as you’re sure they don’t contain valuable information). If the perceptions of you are in line with what you intend, great. If not, it’s time to change your behaviors and begin to shift perception.

Many times clients have come back to me after completing this exercise and said, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before? I can easily change that!”

This is precisely what happened with my client who was perceived as negative and difficult. After realizing that he was being misinterpreted, he made a commitment to state his intentions up front to foster transparency. He adjusted his style in meetings to ask open-ended questions to make clear he was interested in understanding the other person’s position. And he worked hard to control his tendency to grimace and keep a neutral facial expression that connoted openness. Gradually he was able to change perceptions, and allow people to know the empathetic and caring person that he knew himself to be.

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.