Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

 

My first impression of Amy Cuddy is that she's not entirely self-obsessed.

She might be a little confident, but I know she isn't over-confident. I know this because she says: "I want to make sure I haven't lost you."

This is peculiarly caring for someone I don't know. It's very caring for someone I've never met.

I have, you see, merely been browsing Cuddy's new book called: "Presence."

It's a work about first impressions and how you can make someone feel that you are truly there with them, as opposed to elsewhere.

I confess I wasn't naturally predisposed to thinking Cuddy would be worth listening to.

She's a social psychologist and she's at Harvard. Where I come from, that's two strikes against.

However, one shouldn't confuse one's prejudices with one's first impressions. 

Cuddy believes that "first impressions based on the qualities of enthusiasm, passion, and confidence might actually be sound -- precisely because they're so hard to fake."

She explains: "When you are not present, people can tell. When you are, people respond."

For Cuddy, presence is "the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values and potential."

This might -- and I say might -- work in personal relationships. But in business?

If we really expressed our true thoughts and feelings, our presence in some of our companies would be very short indeed.

Still, Cuddy insists that when you meet someone for the first time, your presence will be appreciated positively along two criteria -- trust and competence.

Many make the mistake, she says, that competence is everything. Many of these people are called Harvard MBAs.

They ooze competence in the belief that this will somehow make everyone swoon.

Somehow, they forget something that Cuddy calls "warmth."

For her, warmth is more important.

Warmth is the ability to make someone else trust you and your intentions. She writes: "From an evolutionary perspective, it is more crucial to our survival to know whether a person deserves our trust."

It's odd, then, that one's life experience tends to show that very few people deserve our trust.

Worse, we give our trust to some people who then betray it -- sometimes not long after it was given. For them, trust is like flipping a house.

What can we do? Life is temporary. We have to use whatever survival skills we have and hope that others don't stomp on our hopes and our very being.

So when you meet someone for the first time -- in whatever context -- it might be worth putting your startling excellence somewhere near the back of your mouth and instead attempting to be merely present and human.

"A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you've established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat," Cuddy writes.

A problem with this might be self-delusion. Humans are extremely good at that. Cuddy believes that "you can't sell a skill you don't have."

But isn't this precisely what people do when they fake it until they make it? And doesn't it actually work for quite a few?

For Cuddy, presence is "about believing in and revealing the abilities you truly have."

But truth and self are like lovers in first bloom. They make so many promises to each other. It may take them 50 years to realize who they really are. When they do, it can be frightfully ugly.

Of course, I didn't read all of Cuddy's book. The whole point was to get a first impression of it.

You now must decide whether her words offer sufficiently trustworthy feelings for you to become more acquainted with her written competence.

Being a writer is hard. It's much harder than being a social psychologist. With the latter, you can try to get people to believe in your competence.

With the former, you have to get them to trust that getting from one sentence to the next will be worth it.

Trust me on that one.

Published on: Jan 16, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.