A health-care professional thought she was doing a great job—but her coworkers considered her ineffective and uninspiring. A husband thought of himself as a great listener—but his family members thought he cared about no one’s opinion other than his own. A doctor saw herself as unspectacular—but everyone around her believed she was wonderful.
The way people perceive themselves can differ dramatically from the way the world sees them. And this can hurt relationships and careers. Here’s how to see how the world sees you and what steps you need to take…
WHOSE PROBLEM IS IT?
Perception gaps—where you’re perceived differently from how you really are—often last a lifetime. When events force people to confront these perception gaps, they inevitably reason that it’s everyone else who has got them wrong. “I’m misunderstood,” they reassure themselves. “The world just doesn’t know the real me.”
The truth is that when people’s perception of themselves differs from the world’s perception of them, it is
the “misperceived” people who have the problem. If they do not achieve greater self-awareness quickly, their relationships, careers and reputations can suffer.
Examples: An executive who misperceives his strengths and weaknesses continually sets himself up for failure by taking on projects that don’t fit his actual skills. A father does not take steps to improve his relationships with his grown children because he does not acknowledge the areas where he needs improvement.
These people will spend their lives making the same mistakes time and again and wondering, Why does this keep happening to me? They lose credibility in the eyes of the people around them because they do not deliver the results they promise and fail to hold themselves accountable for shortcomings that seem obvious to everyone else.
Why are people so prone to misperception? It often dates back to childhood. When kids receive praise or criticism about certain aspects of themselves from their parents, teachers or peers, it can make such a deep impression that they continue to believe that these are their strengths and weaknesses for the rest of their lives, ignoring all evidence to the contrary.
HOW OTHER PEOPLE REALLY SEE YOU
If you ask people their opinions of you, they often will just tell you what they think you want to hear. They don’t want to risk upsetting you or damaging their relationship with you. But you can structure your questions in a way that encourages honest responses. Ask people whose opinion you value…
“If you were to list three of my strengths and three of my weaknesses, what would they be?” This question
doesn’t ask whether you have weaknesses…it assumes that you have them—everyone does—and asks what those weaknesses are. Similar: “Give me five adjectives that describe me—and at least two of them cannot be positive.”
“If you were my boss, what would you see as most likely to derail my career?” Bosses are allowed to tell the truth, even when it hurts, in a way that most people are not. Encouraging people to picture themselves in this role thus increases the odds that they will tell the truth.
“If you were to recommend one thing for me to improve about myself this year, and I absolutely had to do it, what would it be?” This question does not ask, “What’s wrong with me?” It asks, “What should I improve about me?” That’s a key distinction—it casts your area of weakness not as a shortcoming but as a temporary challenge that you soon will overcome. Overcoming challenges is a positive thing, not a negative, and people often are happy to help with positive things.
Pose these questions to as many different categories of people as possible—friends, colleagues, relatives, underlings, bosses, clients and so forth. Don’t be surprised if you receive vastly different answers. If you’re like most people, you probably act differently when you are around your bosses than when you’re around people who report to you or clients…and/or differently around friends than relatives.
Example: Your coworkers and clients might say that you are a great listener, but your family members insist that you are a terrible listener. They all might be right—you might not listen as well at home as you do in the office.
If someone attempts to avoid saying anything negative—or mentions only inconsequential shortcomings—prod with, “Come on, be honest with me. It’s for my own good.”
Do not argue if someone says something negative about you that you do not agree with. The point of this process is to learn how the world sees you, not to argue with the world that it’s wrong about you. Thank this person for his/her feedback, and remind yourself that in the long run, hearing criticism is less painful than living in denial and wondering why the world never treats you the way you think you deserve to be treated.
After you have received feedback from multiple people whose opinions you value, consider how you can use the information you gathered to improve yourself.
Example: The chief compliance executive of a major bank turned everybody off, in and out of the company. After learning that people negatively perceived her listening, problem-solving and communication skills versus how she perceived herself, she changed her style dramatically, became more empathetic, tactful and compassionate, and re-earned the respect and trust of people who previously avoided her. She earned a promotion within a year.
Follow up nine to 12 months later with the people who provided feedback. Ask, “Is there anything else I could be doing?” Or retake the feedback exercise with the same people to learn if you’ve made progress.