People living in the LA area are big on perception. Billy Crystal used to say, “It is better to look marvelous than to feel marvelous.” Sometimes this works to your advantage. When I was in my early 20s my hair started turning grey around the temples. This gave me the appearance of being older and wiser and others took my ideas seriously as a result.
Other times, however, it can work against you. If someone has the perception that you are just a programmer, they are unlikely to let you run a project. When someone thinks you are always confrontational you can’t very easily argue them out of it. Perceptions are hard to overcome because they subconsciously taint the way people view you. They will overlook the 10 times you volunteer but remember the 1 time you were unable to pitch in.
How can you break these misperceptions? Here are 7 steps to help alter them.
- Listen to the Accusation. Do not immediately go on the defensive. There is no way you can change a perception in a meeting so don’t try. Try to narrow it down to a specific problem. Sometimes people make it easy for you by saying, “you always….” Ask questions and make notes, mental or on paper, about their concerns.
If you think you are experiencing the impact of misconceptions but no one has mentioned anything start investigating. Identify specific examples of how the perception seems to be playing out against you and analyze the situations. Talk it through with someone and ask, “Am I just being paranoid?” Keep in mind, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean everyone isn’t out to get you.
- Confirm the Perception. Verify that your perception of their misperception is real. Check with a close colleague to see if they see the issue. It may be that the person has the same reaction to everyone. Even if it is only one person’s perspective you will need to deal with it. You may be able to catch it before it spreads.
- Find the Root Cause. Try to determine what the basis for their view point is. It may have been a rough first impression or misinformation from someone. Don’t start the Spanish Inquisition, but if you can identify the source it will help stop the problem.
- Search for Truth. Check to see if there is any truth to the perception. Be honest with yourself and dig deep. In most misperceptions there is at least a small amount of reality.
- Alter Your Approach. You won’t change minds by brut force. One group I worked with had a reputation of being defensive. Had they gone around yelling “we aren’t defensive!” they would have confirmed the perception. What they did instead was change their reaction when an issue was raised. Instead of immediately saying “It wasn’t us!” they switched to “I see your point, let me review the situation and set up a meeting to see how we can best handle it.” The end result may still be a change request, but the perception changed. You might be seen as willing to try instead of defensive.
If people think you are lazy and unproductive, it may be because they don’t know what it is you do. Find a subtle method to inform people of what you accomplish. If you are not issuing a status report, start one or perhaps change what you report. Try volunteering for more visible assignments. Get noticed doing things.
- Give it Time. Although first impressions are formed instantly, undoing them takes time. Continue in the new direction and start looking for changes in attitudes.
- Talk it out. Sometimes perceptions are too deep to change subtly and a more direct approach is necessary. If the job or relationship is important enough it may warrant a meeting to calmly discuss the situation. Explain your perception and the steps you have taken to change. Many times the individual will not even have a clue that there was a problem. Other times you may be able to talk through your differences and move on.
There may be times when real animosity exists. In those situations it is better that it is out on the table and addressed than festering in the background.
Misperceptions can be painful and may even ruin opportunities for you. Address them early and save the hassle later.