How Great Leaders Manage Perceptions

“You can influence people’s perceptions of you by playing to their needs. Once you understand how to make other people feel comfortable with you, you’ve won their approval.” Corporate marketing consultant Camille Lavington, You’ve Only Got Three Seconds (Main Street Books, 1998)

Even at the highest levels of government and business, leaders struggle to communicate their intentions. Most of us have some demonstrable deficiencies when it comes to influencing others.
A leader’s words may be misinterpreted, misquoted and/or taken out of context. Communicating and managing perceptions remain significant challenges. Leaders cannot succeed without consistently and accurately telegraphing their thoughts and intentions. If you want to shape others’ perceptions, you must take control of the messages you send.
Major problems occur when listeners distort your words to fit their existing views. Their prevailing agendas and beliefs may prevent them from liking, trusting or even noticing you. This workplace dynamic is seldom logical or fair. In fact, it’s often biased, incomplete, unconscious, inflexible and largely automatic.
Think of your last verbal workplace exchange. You probably thought you explained yourself well and that your listeners understood you. Here’s the unvarnished truth: You and they likely didn’t. How, then, can we ensure that people hear what we say?
The Perception Process
Perceivers (your audience) are prone to perceptual errors governed by rules and biases we can identify and anticipate. Understanding this predisposition allows us to unlock the perception puzzle. As leaders, we can alter our words and actions to send desired signals.
Listeners experience a flurry of brain activity as they try to understand what you’re saying. They’re also sizing you up, forming opinions of you and your message, comparing you to others, and remembering similar situations and opinions.
Most of what happens in perceivers’ minds is automatic and unconscious. This is Phase 1 of the perception process, and it is riddled with bias.
In Phase 2, perceivers use the part of the brain concerned with logic and reason. This is a much more effortful thinking process, one that requires energy. Consequently, they avoid it to conserve brain resources.
More often than not, Phase 2 is never activated. People form opinions of you and your message with Phase 1 assumptions and then they move on.
Most leaders are unaware of these basic brain behaviors, so they never take the time needed to push their listeners past quick, stereotypical judgments.
Two Flawed Assumptions
“Statistically speaking, there are only weak correlations between how others see us and how we believe we are seen,” notes social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson in No One Understands You and What to Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015).
Without even realizing it, we’re likely operating under two flawed assumptions:

  1. Other people see you objectively as you are.
  2. Other people see you as you see yourself.

Neither of these beliefs is true. You’re much harder to read than you imagine. You may think you’re an open book, but this is magical thinking. You’ll always be a mystery to others, even if you think you’re doing enough to make yourself knowable.
For example, your emotions are much less obvious than you realize. Strong emotions are easy to read: fear, rage, surprise, disgust. But the more subtle emotions we experience daily frustration, annoyance, disappointment, impatience and respect may not actually register on our faces. When they do, they’re usually indistinguishable from other emotions.
Psychologists call this the transparency illusion. Great communicators will go the extra mile, clearly articulating what they’re feeling instead of expecting others to deduce it.
How ‘Judgeable’ Are You?
Some of us are more knowable than others. Leaders who are easier to understand deliberately express themselves in ways that encourage more accurate perceptions. Psychologists refer to this as ‘judgeability’.
Introverted leaders who reveal little about themselves will have a hard time with judgeability. Similarly, if you aren’t shy about sharing your accomplishments, you’ll also meet listeners resistance (unless you clarify your intentions). For example, telling people you graduated at the top of your class or turned around a failing company isn’t as effective as articulating the strengths that helped facilitate these results.
If you don’t tell people what they need to know, their brains will fill in the blanks, creating a personality profile that may or may not be accurate.
Perception Biases
Perceivers rely on rules of thumb so their brains don’t have to work too hard:

  1. Confirmation Bias. When people look at you, they see what they’re expecting to see. They hear what they’re expecting to hear. They seek (and will probably find) evidence that matches their expectations.
  2. Primacy Effect. First impressions strongly influence how we interpret and remember information. People resist changing opinions once they’re formed.
  3. Stereotypes. Most people are biased, yet they deny being so. We are unconsciously influenced by stereotypical beliefs about gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, professions, socioeconomic classes and education. We categorize people on various dimensions, including facial features. It’s human nature. Our brains are wired to quickly sort friend from foe. We cannot turn off this feature, but we can become conscious of it and make necessary modifications.
  4. Halo Effect. We tend to assume that people who possess one positive quality also have many others. For example, we often judge a good-looking person to be smart and charming, even without evidence.
  5. False-Consensus Effect. We assume other people think and feel exactly the way we do. We erroneously believe our bad habits are universal and normal. We also tend to believe that we have better values and are generally more honest, kind and capable than others (the false-uniqueness fallacy).

Managing Others’ Biases
You never start from scratch when meeting new people. Their brains are rapidly filling in details about you, even if you’ve never met them before.
The more you consider listeners likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, the better you can anticipate what they’re projecting onto you. Work on emphasizing your good qualities to benefit from positive stereotypes and halo effects.
While humans are wired to make assumptions based on first impressions, we’re also capable of correcting those impressions as long as we see value in doing so.
3 Perceptual Filters
We view others through three lenses or filters:

  • Trust
  • Power
  • Ego

When you speak or act, perceivers ask themselves:

  • How much trust should I grant?
  • What is the power differential here?
  • How much of an ego threat or self-esteem boost will I experience?

Studies show that employees ask themselves two questions when assessing their leaders:

  1. Do you have good intentions toward me (friend or foe)?
  2. Do you have what it takes to act on these intentions?

The Trust Filter
The first thing people do when listening to you is determine whether to trust you. This decision is made almost entirely unconsciously.
Leaders can build trust in many ways:

  • Project Warmth and Competence. This is perhaps the most important component of gaining others’ trust. How well do you communicate friendliness, loyalty and empathy? Do you come across as intelligent, skillful and effective? According to Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, perceptions of warmth and competence account for 90 percent of the variability in whether others perceive you positively or negatively.
  • Trust Them First. We are naturally inclined to reciprocate favors and extend trust to someone who has trusted us first.
  • Pay Attention. Leaders who make eye contact, smile, nod, recognize individuals by name and really listen are the ones who excel at communicating. While this may seem obvious, too many executives appear hurried and oblivious to others.
  • Share Your Stories. When you share past experiences (especially your mistakes), you become vulnerable, thereby extending trust to listeners. This helps build high-quality relationships.
  • Walk Your Talk. People need to see you make good on your promises and carry out your stated intentions. Actions speak louder than words. Overconfidence is a trap for leaders, who must learn to project a realistic sense of themselves. Great leaders show modesty, yet remain confident in their words and deeds.

The Power Filter
Power changes the way we see other people, especially when there’s a power differential.
When leaders speak, they must be mindful of how their power influences their message. Failing to address the issue leaves room for perceivers to fill in the blanks. Great communicators are always cognizant of this filter and respectfully enlist their followers’ engagement.
The Ego Filter
The ego lens has one goal: to protect and enhance the perceiver’s self-esteem. Perceivers will always protect their self-esteem, including their decision to receive or reject a leader’s message. Smart leaders address their audience members’ interests and benefits.
Successful Communication
If you want to be understood, first try to improve your ability to understand others. Identify your ingrained assumptions, biases and filters so you can manage them more effectively.
Halvorson suggests the following strategies:

  1. Take your time. Always remember that your first impression may be dead wrong. There are always other possible interpretations of someone’s behavior.
  2. Commit to being fair. We sometimes forget to be fair when we judge someone. The more you consciously implement fairness, the more accurate your perceptions will be.
  3. Beware of the confirmation bias. Once you form an impression, you’ll seek evidence to confirm it. you’ll ignore other behaviors, even (and perhaps especially) if they contradict your impressions.Have the courage to confront your biases and accept reality.

If there’s a huge gap between your intended message and how others hear it, you’ll need to closely examine your communication style and substance. Consider working with a trusted mentor or professional coach to analyze how you come across to others.

Digital Distractions: The War for Your Attention

Are you letting digital devices overwhelm you and eat away at your ability to focus and concentrate? Is technology really saving you time and energy – like it’s supposed to do – or is it running rampant, creating unnecessary work?
Most of us are bombarded by messages, texts, alerts, and buzzed throughout the day with rings, chirps, and dings, making it difficult to concentrate on crucial information. With the slightest urge to procrastinate, we’re never more than a click away from diversion.
This 24/7 connected culture is taking its toll professionally as well as personally. We waste time, attention, and energy on extraneous information and interactions, staying busy but producing little of real value.
The Information Overload Research Group estimates that knowledge workers in the US waste 25% of their time dealing with too much information, costing the economy $997 billion annually.
Smart, productive people know they must manage their devices and data, or else information streams will drown them.
Digital Addiction or Anxiety
In a Harvard Business Review article, “Conquering Digital Distraction,” psychologist Larry Rosen at the University of California, Dominguez Hills, suggests the overuse of digital devices is not so much an addiction as a response to fear-based anxieties, such as the following:

  • FOMO: the fear of missing out
  • FOBO: the fear of being offline
  • Nomophobia: the fear of being out of phone contact

In the information age, knowledge has power and those who stay ahead of the data stream are perceived as smarter and more capable. This demands that you manage the content, analyze it, and put it into perspective so you can apply what’s valuable while discarding the rest.
Digital devices and information streams aren’t going away; they’re only growing and multiplying along with their complexity. You have to understand how to use them strategically if you want to guard your ability to focus and concentrate on your most important tasks, both on and offline.
Human Brains and Multitasking
The fact is, the brain doesn’t handle more than one problem well. Although we can certainly walk and chew gum at the same time, we can’t pay attention to simultaneous problems. Instead, the brain must switch tasks, using uptime and energy. When task switching is not done well, time is wasted and mistakes are made.
One such research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, found that “Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffered a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” The report termed this new “infomania” a serious threat to workplace productivity.
Another study at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers. They found that it took an average of 20 minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or emails and to return to their original task.
Studies show that doing two things at the same time can be done well only when one task is automatic. So you can:

  • Listen to a podcast while driving, but not with good retention or learning.
  • Answer email while on a conference call, but not without lowering quality.
  • Look at your Facebook feed while eating lunch, most likely without problems.
  • Do your expense report while watching YouTube, but expect errors.

There are two approaches recommended to get back in the driver’s seat to win the attention wars:

  1. Systematically limit or reduce access to information streams.
  2. Make use of technological tools to strategically manage information.

Smart Use of Tech Tools
Some recommend that knowledge workers restrict time and access to digital content; however, when it comes to responding to emails and social media updates that concern customers and business reputations, we don’t always have a choice.
We can recognize that not all messages need immediate responses, and learn to prioritize tasks. For example, email filters can be set up so that certain subjects may be handled first.
Outlook, Gmail, and most other major email tools will allow you to set rules and filters to ensure that only the most essential messages reach you right away. Newsletters, purchase receipts, social media updates, and messages on which you are copied can be accessed later. Then designate an hour every day to review these folders.
You can also use news feeds such as RSS or newsreader apps such as Feedly, Reeder, or Flipboard to group articles and blog posts by topics. You can’t read everything in your field, nor do you need to, but you can stay current by regularly reviewing what others are writing.
The important thing is to manage content on your schedule, when you have the time and attention to devote to each topic.
Managing Social Media
Building professional credibility and reaching out to others can be enhanced by social media sites and specific interest groups. Yet it can be a time monster. You need to automate as much as possible.
Several tools offer an efficient way to post to Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook: Hootsuite, Buffer, and Social Inbox are popular with overloaded executives. These tools allow you to reach multiple networks and schedule updates and posts in advance.
The War for Attention
The question of why we are willing to fracture our attention and risk errors remains unanswered. There is perhaps some pride in believing we are able to multitask in order to prove our cognitive prowess, but it can also be fear driven.
Winning the battle over distractions may be a long uphill fight, but as we gain access to more and more tools, we can adapt better skills to maintain our focus.

Midcareer Crisis …or Opportunity?

Have you ever had a midcareer fantasy where you quit your job and go do something new?
Many executives secretly admit to their coaches that they’re contemplating midcareer shifts. They may not actively seek change, but they certainly start imagining it.
Of LinkedIn’s 313 million members, 25% are active job seekers; 60% are passive job seekers (not proactively searching for new jobs, but seriously willing to consider viable opportunities). There’s also been a steady increase in self-employed and temporary workers over the last two decades. Entrepreneurship may sound lucrative every time a startup goes public.
Regardless of your age, background or professional accomplishments, you’ve probably dreamed about a new career at some point. Midlife is often a time when we reevaluate our goals, aspirations and what truly matters to us in life.
In “5 Signs It’s Time for a New Job” (Harvard Business Review, April 2015), Columbia University Professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic examines what happens to many people at midcareer. Few of us actually shift to something different. As he explains, complacency often trumps transformation:
Humans are naturally prewired to fear and avoid change, even when we are decidedly unhappy with our current situation. Indeed, meta-analyses show that people often stay on the job despite having negative job attitudes, low engagement and failing to identify with the organization’s culture. So, at the end of the day, there is something comforting about the predictability of life: it makes us feel safe.
Chamorro-Premuzic cites five signs that indicate it’s time to seriously consider a career switch:

  1. You feel undervalued.
  2. You’re not learning.
  3. You’re underperforming.
  4. You’re just doing it for the money.
  5. You hate your boss.

Yet, who hasn’t experienced these feelings periodically? Do they mean you’re headed for a full-fledged midlife or midcareer crisis?
The Stereotypical Story
Hearing the phrase “midlife crisis” evokes the cliche of a successful man, between 40 and 55, who wakes up one day and decides he’s been chasing all the wrong things: his career, family, wife, car and possessions. Nothing provides him with the satisfaction he craves. He demands more.
Suddenly, he divorces, changes career or organization, dresses differently, gets a young girlfriend and buys a red sports car. Years later, he finds himself with the same unfulfilled yearnings, having metaphorically changed seats on the Titanic.
While this scenario has become today’s hackneyed midlife-crisis narrative, the concept of middle age as a distinct life stage dates back to the 19th century, according to Patricia Cohen, author of In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age (Scribner, 2012). The term “midlife crisis” was first coined in 1965 by psychologist Elliott Jaques. In 1974, journalist Gail Sheehy famously depicted the midlife crisis as a life stage in her bestselling book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life.
Roughly a quarter of Americans reports experiencing a midlife crisis, according to research published in 2000 by Cornell University sociologist Elaine Wethington. Many who disclaim the notion regard midlife crises as a lame excuse for behaving immaturely.
The term crisis also contributes to stigmatization, as it suggests a shock, disruption or loss of control. But the actual data on midlife experience and the relationship between work and happiness points to something different: an extended and unpleasant – but manageable – downturn.
The Happiness U-Curve
The average employee’s job satisfaction deteriorates dramatically in midlife, according to a British survey conducted by Professor Andrew Oswald of The University of Warwick.
Midcareer crises are, in fact, a widespread regularity, rather than a few individuals’ misfortune.
But here’s the good news: In the second half of people’s working lives, job satisfaction increases again. In many cases, it reaches higher levels than experienced early in one’s career, essentially forming a U-shaped curve depicted in the following graph:
(Source: Crisis, The Atlantic, December 2014)
Subsequent research revealed this age-related curve in job satisfaction is part of a much broader phenomenon. A similar midlife nadir is detectable in measures of people’s overall life satisfaction and has been found in more than 50 countries.
The U-curve tells a more accurate tale of what happens midlife and midcareer. It’s not a story of chaos or disruption, but of a difficult – yet natural – transition to a new equilibrium.
Just knowing the phenomenon is common can be therapeutic. Princeton University health economist Hannes Schwandt cites a feedback effect: “Part of your disappointment is driven by the disappointment itself.”
Understanding the U-shaped curve allows us to recognize midlife as challenging, yet ultimately gratifying. We should resist judging ourselves harshly for feeling disappointed. We can avoid making bad decisions that potentially lead to midlife divorces and career catastrophes.
The Other Side of Midlife
Fortunately, most people avoid upending their lives at the first signs of midlife dissatisfaction. As noted earlier, only 25% of us even admit to experiencing a crisis. So, what happens to the75% who may feel dissatisfied at midlife, but who don’t do anything about it? Are they in denial or simply more mature?
Freud described two requisites for sanity: work and love. What happens when work and love lose their sparkle, as often occurs in midlife?
Work carries a large, invisible burden: the presumption that it will provide our lives with meaning and energize our spirits. Sometimes it does. By midlife, however, we may find that work drains us.
The ego tends to prefer security over development. Heeding it too closely means you may wind up with neither.
At midlife, most of us feel the need to rethink our priorities. Unfortunately, we avoid this task. It’s much easier to succumb to fear. We view change as threatening, and we don’t want to risk losing our hard-earned stability.
In Search of Meaning and Wisdom
Psychologists have not yet determined why people in 50+ industrialized nations experience midlife crises. It’s certainly a major reason why executives hire executive coaches. “What’s next?” is one of life’s most worrisome questions. A coach can help you reevaluate your cherished convictions, morals and guiding principles.
Experiencing disappointment doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong. It signals that something is missing.
There’s a mental shift at midlife from “time since birth” to “time left until death.” We begin to feel time is running out and, more crucially, question whether what drove us in the first half of life is worthy enough for a fulfilling second half.
Being aware of the pitfalls associated with the midlife experience can prevent you from committing irreparable errors. If you know you’re vulnerable to doubts, anxieties and mood swings, you can stop yourself from storming out of a meeting or acting out of desperation. If you feel trapped, midlife can become a truly dangerous life passage. Perhaps Carl Jung said it best:
We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in morning was true will at evening have become a lie.
Midcareer Coaching
Consider retaining a professional coach to guide you through self-examination and reflection on what truly matters most to you. The process often entails reconnecting you to what you love about your life and career.
Clinging to the status quo may, on the surface, appear to be a safer, more mature choice. Nothing could be further from the truth. Redoubling your efforts to achieve happiness based on what drove you in the first half of life is foolish.
In the second half of life, facing our failures and losses facilitates course corrections. We are rewarded with deeper, more fulfilling life and career experiences. Avoiding life’s natural progressions prevents you from broadening consciousness and becoming your authentic self.
Midcareer is a time to examine regrets and accept mistakes. A coach can help you turn failures into meaningful learning opportunities. You won’t need to bury bad memories. Greater self-acceptance opens new avenues.
Unfortunately, most of us work so hard to obtain an identity that it becomes very hard to let it go. What worked earlier in your career is nearly always inadequate to meet the challenges of your mature years, as Marshall Goldsmith proved in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Hachette Books, 2007).
Acknowledging midcareer dissatisfaction opens a window to exploring your options. Ask yourself:

  • What steps must I take to transition to the next stage of my journey?
  • Can I give myself permission to explore new paths?
  • How does fear keep me in a reactive stance, constrained by outmoded routines?
  • Am I content to live partially, or am I ready and willing to explore new ways of thinking and feeling?
  • Can I gather the energy needed to realize my unlived potential?
  • How can I take one small step?

The age-old Serenity Prayer comes to mind:
“Grant me the courage to change the things I can, to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.”