Mastering the Power of Perceptions

Perceptions are reality and being perceived “accurately” does impact everyone’s success, self-confidence, more trusting relationships, less stress and overall happiness. That’s not an opinion – it’s based upon proven science. Yet it’s also a proven fact that most individual’s authentic qualities are not well understood or perceived by others.  

After 10 years of working with over a thousand business professionals, I still find it compelling that so many individuals take a half-hearted, passive effort to influencing how they are perceived by others; when with a small concerted effort, anybody’s authentic qualities can become recognized and valued by others.

Let me share with you some insights I have learned from my research that can help you become more proactive in influencing how others perceive your authentic qualities. 

The insights I will share come from two different types of research I have been conducting for more than 10 years.  Firstly, we ask individuals (over a thousand and counting) to describe their approach to influencing how they are perceived by others.  Secondly, our firm maintains a very large, growing data base of over a thousand individual’s description of their most important authentic qualities and a corresponding set of data describing how these same people are perceived by a large number of people in their life, professional and personal. 

From our research we have learned …

For sure everyone attempts to influence, to varying degrees, how they are perceived by others, it’s basic human nature.  Research conducted by many scientists, as well as our own research identifies three different segments of perception influencers:

  1. The competent and confident
  2. The over-confident and under-performing
  3. The under-confident and passive

The Competent and Confident

To be sure there are many individuals who have developed a high level of competency in perception management.  Research points out individuals with such a competency are in the minority.  These savvy individuals have spent considerable time learning how to influence how they are perceived by others and place a high priority on the importance of perceptions in relationship management.  Numerous research studies report that individuals who are competent at accurately influencing how they are perceived by others share the following characteristics:

  • Have a sense of purpose in their life
  • Are introspective and have developed a high degree of self-understanding and “self-concept”
  • Have a clear understanding of the authentic qualities they want to stand out in the minds of others
  • Report to be very happy and well-adjusted throughout their life
  • Have likeable personalities

In addition:

  • Women demonstrate a superior ability to more effectively influence how well they are perceived by others
  • Outgoing, attractive looking individuals are more likely to be accurately perceived by others

People who fall into this category of perception influencers also report less stress in their life, are more likely to have a large group of fun, rewarding personal relationships and have more success in their career.

The Over-Confident and Under-Performing

This segment, the largest, define their approach to influencing how others perceive them as – “I am sure I will leave the right impression,” their words, not mine.  This approach can best be described as taking an “unconscious competence” approach.  Most of us are unconsciously competent at many skills in our life; meaning we have developed a high level of competence at a skill and can consistently deliver a superior result, almost instinctively.  However, just because one may think they are good at something, doesn’t make it so; there is a fine line between being unconsciously competent and unconsciously incompetent.

Accurately influencing how others perceive you is not easy and requires experience, practice and a reliable source of feedback.  There is considerable science-based knowledge that suggests that those choosing to be unconsciously competent influencing others’ perceptions are likely to fall short.  Consider these facts:

  • According to a study conducted at the University of Manitoba while 60% of people felt confident that they were effective at leaving the impressions that reflected a set of their authentic qualities.  The reality was that only 26% of the targeted individuals could identify those intended qualities!
  • Only up to 20% – 50% of friends and family members are likely to perceive you in the same way you perceive yourself.

Other studies also provide insights into the nature of how perceptions are created, which further challenges the unconscious competent approach to influencing others’ perceptions. 

Perceivers are lazy.  Everyone has the same ability to accurately perceive others, but not the same motivation to understand another person.  Most people are lazy (technically known as “cognitive misers”) in applying themselves to accurately perceive others.

Perceivers are not fair. Others are most likely to perceive you using stereotypes or hold a perception about you based upon a single incident.  Most people are very unlikely to change their mind even if they know it is a shallow understanding. 

Perceivers need a compelling reason to understand the real you. A perceiver will only take the time and effort to gain a deeper, more accurate perception of your real qualities and intentions if they have a strong motivation or are forced to do so by some dramatic circumstance.

First impressions matter more than you might think.  The Primacy Effect is a term psychologist use to describe the importance of the first impression.  Simply stated, the Primacy Effect states the first impression has an oversized impact on how one is perceived.  Even if the perceiver is presented with evidence later in the relationship, the perceiver will fall back to the first impression when making a judgment of another person.

Perceivers are stubborn.  If you make a bad first impression, it will take a consistent demonstration of overwhelming evidence to change another person’s perception of you.  Moreover, it will take a conscious effort to help the perceiver “connect the dots” between a certain action and a specific personal quality that produced that result.

Our analysis of the data base of perceptions of leaders versus their intended perceptions we found two important findings of the unconscious competent perception managers.  First the descriptions of their authentic qualities lacked distinctiveness (caring, integrity, thoughtful, hard worker).  Second the perception feedback was very diffuse, lacking any consistent, strong themes.

The Under-Confident and Passive

There is a segment of individuals who choose to take a passive approach to influencing the perceptions others have of them. Generally, there are a number of reasons motivating their inaction. 

  • Many people believe, for a variety of reasons, it is not possible to have much impact on how they are perceived by others. 
  • Others believe it is just too much work to influence others. 
  • Some believe that influencing others is being dishonest and in some cases being disingenuous, attempting to “puff-up” their image. 
  • While others blow-off the notion of perception management, or in the terms of one of our clients – “I am too busy to worry about how I am perceived by others.” Or the person with the attitude – “It is not fair to be judged by how others perceive me, I should be known for my actions.”

Among the types of people who fall into this category our data shows these individuals generally lacked the self-awareness to clearly describe their outstanding authentic qualities.  Moreover, and not surprisingly, the perceptual feedback they received lacked any definite patterns. It was also interesting to observe that for these types of individuals it was difficult to gather a reasonable amount of perceptual data from others.

Lessons Learned

Our work on perceptions continues and here is a general framework we would prescribe.

Name it. Measure it. Manage it.

Name it.  In the words of Marshall McLuhan – “If I can name it, I can know it.” Take the time to describe your most authentic, outstanding qualities.  A good place to start would be to write down the three most important qualities that have enabled you to contribute by making a difference in different situations.  Certainly, there are more comprehensive models to use to define the attributes of your personal brand. Use this exercise as a starting point.

Measure it.  One of the key differences that distinguishes the Competent & Confident segments from the others is their on-going commitment to understanding how they are perceived by others.  This commitment is not driven by a paranoia or lack of confidence; it is driven by the importance placed on the discipline of perception management.  By contrast, I have observed how individuals from the two other groups demonstrate a sense of trepidation when they are about to receive a report of how they (during one of our leadership brand workshops) are handed a report detailing the perceptions others have of them.  

There are a number of ways to obtain a reading of how you are perceived by others, however it is vitally important that you collect data anonymously and from a large well-represented sample of individuals.  

Manage it.  Success in any endeavor requires setting goals and managing your effort to attain those objectives; influencing how you are perceived is no different.  Your primary goal in perception management is to continually narrow the gap between how you want to be perceived and how you are currently perceived.   We call this process “minding the perceptual gap.” 

Being perceived accurately matters and delivers many powerful benefits, ranging from happiness to professional success.  Managing perceptions does not need to be complicated; a little effort will yield big results.

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