In my last post, I talked about two experiments that showed how the expectations of teachers can make kids get better grades and how the expectations of scientists can make rats do better on mazes. My point was that if you aren’t paying attention to how people perceive you, chances are you will fall short of your full potential.
In this post, I want to look at three things you can do to manage how others perceive you and how you can influence their expectations.
1. Under promise / Over deliver
CEO Craig needs two projects done by two of his direct reports. He asks Tom when he can expect Project T to be finished. Tom says he will have it done by Friday of next week. He asks Vick for the finish date on his project and Vick says Monday of next week. Next week comes and both Tom and Vick turn in their projects on Wednesday. For Vick this is two days late–for Tom it is two days early.
Both Tom and Vick did their projects in the same amount of time. However, Tom did a much better job of actively managing the CEO’s expectations. The CEO is going to see Tom as someone who gets things done early and who can deliver projects on time. Vick, on the other hand, has increased the perception that he is late or can’t manage projects well.
2. Dress for perception
This cartoon shows business people sitting around a table for a meeting. They all look normal, except for one guy who is dressed like Batman. The caption says, “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.” I’m not advocating going to work dressed as Batman, but how you dress has a lot to do with the way people perceive you. The important thing is to focus on how others will perceive your clothing–not on how you or your friends perceive your clothing.
Now I’m definitely not the person to be giving fashion/style advice, so all I can really offer here is to pay attention to what others wear. If your boss wears a business suit every day, what do you think his perception is of someone who wears dirty jeans and a t-shirt? Your suited boss may associate jeans with lower level work or with relaxation, and your clothes might effectively bar you from being considered for a promotion. On the other hand, if your boss wears jeans to work, wearing a tux every day is probably just going to make you seem weird. Well, a tux is probably going to make you seem weird no matter what your boss wears, but you get the idea.
3. Watch what you say
When people open their mouths to speak, what comes out gives you a picture of what goes on inside their respective heads. Be very aware that everything you say shapes people’s perception of you. If you spend hours talking with co-workers about the details of the latest reality television show, that influences their perception of you. If you take an interest in your co-worker’s hobby of collecting embargoed cigars, that influences people’s perception of you. If every Monday morning you have a new story to tell about what you did while inebriated during the weekend, that influences other’s perception of you.
What type of talk will benefit your career may vary depending on your particular job, what part of the country you are in, etc. For example, I have lived in places in which car racing is associated with fat, shirtless men sitting in lawn chairs at a trailer park next to their tireless truck held up by cinderblocks watching races on a TV that has a coat-hanger as an antenna. I’ve lived in other places where racing is heavily associated with engineering and pretty much the exact opposite of the connotations I previously described. If you want to manage perceptions, you have to be careful not to align yourself with subjects that carry negative baggage within the group you are trying to influence.
These are three areas of potentially hundreds where you can intentionally manage others’ perceptions. As in every situation, moderation is important. You don’t want to get so focused on managing perceptions that you fail to actually work at being successful. Still, the ability to understand how you are being perceived by others is a key skill in propelling your career forward.