“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:
- Other people see you objectively as you are.
- 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.
Perceivers rely on rules of thumb so their brains don’t have to work too hard:
- 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.
- Primacy Effect. First impressions strongly influence how we interpret and remember information. People resist changing opinions once they’re formed.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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:
- Do you have good intentions toward me (friend or foe)?
- 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.
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:
- Take your time. Always remember that your first impression may be dead wrong. There are always other possible interpretations of someone’s behavior.
- 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.
- 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.