How do the people you work with see you? However you answered that question, you're almost certainly wrong. It's surprisingly difficult for most of us to understand how others perceive us--we think we're being inclusive as managers and others see us as weak and indecisive (that happened to me). Or we think we're being clever and entertaining and others think that we talk too much (that happened to me too).
One common reason for the mismatch between how we see ourselves and how others see us is something called the "transparency illusion"--the belief that others always understand our intentions and know what's going on in our minds. That insight comes from Kristi Hedges, leadership coach and author, who explains the problem in a recent piece for the Harvard Business Review.
The problem with the transparency illusion is that it can get in the way of your success, particularly if you run a company and want it to grow, or if you have a managerial job and hope to move on to a higher executive position. "We are often uncertain, confused, or even completely unaware of what we project. And this lack of self-awareness can be career-limiting," Hedges writes. For example, one of her client missed the chance at a high-level position because people perceived him as negative and difficult when he just thought he was being analytical.
Fortunately--if you're brave enough--you can break through the transparency illusion by asking two simple questions designed to get your smartest colleagues to give you insight into how you're perceived. This is what Hedges calls a Presence Audit, and she provides detail on how to do it in her book The Power of Presence. Here's a quick look at how it works:
1. Select five people and ask for a one-on-one meeting.
"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," Hedges writes.
Your instincts may tell you to choose people you really trust, because you respect their opinion and you know they won't hurt you too badly. It's fine to include them, but make sure you also ask people you know will be completely straight with you. People who knew you in a former job and still deal with you today are especially valuable.
2. Ask two questions.
Begin the meeting by explaining that whatever they tell you will be kept in confidence and that you are soliciting feedback from multiple co-workers. Both will help your sources be more comfortable, and therefore more honest with you.
"What is the general perception of me?"
"What could I do differently that would have the greatest impact on my success?"
Both questions are designed to tap into the general perception of you in your company, not just what the person sitting across from you thinks.
Your contact may answer your questions by talking about specific things you did right or wrong at your job or on a particular project. That's natural--in most review situations, specific criticism or praise of your performance in different situations is more valuable than a general perception. But in this case, the general perception is what you're after, so if the answers are too narrow in scope, Hedges suggests following up this way:
"I appreciate that feedback. May I go up a level now and ask about the general perception of me as a leader/colleague/person?"
That should get you to more of the general perception of who you are and how you are that you're looking for.
3. Keep a poker face.
People who give you honest feedback will be watching you closely to see how you're taking it, Hedges says. If they can see that you're angry or disturbed, they may moderate their comments and pull their punches just when they could be helping you the most.
So work hard on having no reaction, or only a welcoming reaction. And whatever you do, resist the temptation to argue with what they're telling you or explain yourself. Right now you're only gathering information about how you're seen. And if it seems outlandish to you, just remember that your colleagues are in a much better position to know what people say about you in your absence than you are.
When they're done answering your questions, thank your colleagues sincerely. After all, they've just gone through an uncomfortable conversation solely for the purpose of helping you. And even if you're not genuinely grateful for their comments at the moment you get them, chances are that over time, you'll come to value what you've learned.
By the time you've finished five interviews, you'll almost certainly have heard the same or similar comments several times over. Those are the perceptions you should take seriously, and work to change if they aren't who you are or how you want to be seen. "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!'" Hedges reports. That's certainly how I felt when I learned I was seen as indecisive--I immediately started seeking consensus less and opting for action more.
What don't you know now about how your co-workers, managers, and customers perceive you? This exercise is a great way to find out.