Others’ Perception is Reality – So how do you change it?
We’ve noticed a common reaction when debriefing 360° feedback results: “that’s not me!”
Many people feel misunderstood or mislabeled at some point in their careers. The disconnect usually stems from a misalignment of intent with other’s experiences—“I don’t mean to come across as competitive, I am just committed to delivering for our customers”; “I DO want to collaborate—why do people see me as a bully?”; “I’m not disengaged or disinterested. I just prefer to listen and reflect before offering an opinion.”
Despite your best intentions, others’ perceptions of you become your reputation.
Why perceptions really matter
Resistance to constructive feedback is natural. But regardless of your intent, the impact of your actions on others is real, meaningful, and should be taken seriously. Psychological research into perceptions and behaviors suggests others will treat you and respond to you in a manner consistent with their perceptions of you. In other words, peoples’ perceptions of you will have real and measurable consequences.
For example, if you are perceived as a bully, like in the above example, others may decide not to include you in teamwork opportunities. If you are deemed untrustworthy, you will likely not be confided in and may struggle to build relationships. Regardless of who you know you are, who others think you are matters.
How to change perceptions
So if you find yourself misunderstood, stuck in the disconnect between your intentions and others’ perceptions of you, what can you do? Below are three practical tips for bridging the divide.
1. Ask for more feedback.
Avoid the temptation to dismiss what the person is saying, even if it does not align with your perspective. Instead, dive into the feedback. The more you understand about the other person’s perception, the better you can manage it. Dig deeper to understand their thinking with the following questions:
- What is the impact on you (or others) of my behavior?
- What advice would you have for me to do differently?
- Help me understand why you feel this way.
2. Reveal your intentions.
The behaviors you have adopted might have a good reason behind them, even if they’re leading to a bad perception. Sometimes these are strengths overplayed–maybe your urgency for results causes you to push others too hard– or sometimes they are defense mechanisms—for example, a fear of failure might prevent you from being vulnerable with others. Either way, unless you’re acting like a real jerk it is unlikely this behavior will always be counterproductive—there is probably a good time and place for you to act this way.
When you find yourself in a situation that calls for the behavior that is not playing well, communicate your intentions. Let your audience know why you’re behaving the way you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. This will prevent you from catching someone off guard with a behavior that may be deemed risky.
3. Try feed-forward techniques.
If you want to change someone’s perception of you quickly, a good tip is to ask them to attend to your new behavior. Similar to if you’ve ever tried to lose or gain weight, you’ll notice the first few pounds on the scale quicker than anyone else will. The same goes for behavior change. For others to recognize it, it must be different enough for them to notice. But with feed-forward techniques, you can speed up the time it takes for others to notice a change in your behavior by asking them to actively attend to it.
Most of us ask others to let us know when we are doing something wrong (i.e., repeating the offending behavior). While this is a valuable tactic for holding us accountable in the moment, it should be used sparingly when trying to change perceptions because you are asking people to notice when you are behaving like the “old you”. The result is that the observer confirms their previous opinion of you—not exactly what you want when trying to change behaviors.
With feed-forward, ask others to let you know when you do something right, or when they see you acting in accordance with the way you want to be perceived. For example, if you’re working on softening your message to ensure you are not overly blunt or direct when communicating, you can ask your direct reports to let you know when they find your feedback energizing or motivating. Or, you can ask your peers to let you know when they see you asking questions before offering an opinion, or framing a critical message in a palatable way. Doing so will force the person to see you differently, and reinforce your positive behavior change.
Have you ever tried to change your reputation? What has worked for you in managing others’ perceptions of you? What have you seen others do to build a better reputation? Share your thinking with us in the comments.