Perception Bias: You’re Not Who You Think You Are

By: Rose Cartolari, Sr. Consultant, Executive Development Associates, Inc.

Reflecting on my recent work travels, one topic kept jumping out wherever I went.  Perception: how others perceive us and how we can manage it, which is what brought me to write this (hopefully timely) article.

How do people perceive you as a leader?

Quite well, you think?  Well, most of us are likely operating under two flawed assumptions that:

  1. Other people see you objectively as you are.
  2. Other people see you as you see yourself.

Neither of these beliefs is true!  Renowned social psychologist and Columbia Business School Professor Heidi Grant Halvorson has even written a book on it called No One Understands You and What to Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015).  Research overwhelmingly supports it: You really are much harder to read than you imagine!

Let’s look at why. Human beings rely on heuristics (quick rules of thumbs) to help the brain speed up decision making. As you give others (external) input, they have been rapidly “filling in” with loads of their own internal (and usually unconscious) information. I have run entire training sessions solely on the cognitive biases through which our actions and words are interpreted – but here are some of the top ones:

Confirmation Bias. Overwhelmingly research shows that when people look at you, they see what they’re expecting to see. They hear what they’re expecting to hear. They seek (and will probably find) evidence that matches their expectations.

Primacy Effect. First impressions disproportionately influence how we interpret and remember information.  People resist changing opinions once they’re formed.

Stereotypes. Most people are biased, yet deny it. We are unconsciously influenced by stereotypical beliefs about gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, professions, socioeconomic classes and education. We categorize people on a host of dimensions, including facial features. It’s human nature. We cannot turn off this feature, but we can become conscious of it and make necessary modifications.

Halo Effect. We tend to assume that people who possess one positive quality also have many others. For example, we often judge a good-looking person to be smart and charming, even without evidence.

False-Consensus Effect. We assume other people think and feel exactly the way we do. We erroneously believe our bad habits are universal and normal. We also tend to believe that we have better values and are generally more honest, kind and capable than others (the false-uniqueness fallacy).

How can I manage others’ biases?

Remember, you are NEVER a blank slate – even when you meet new people.  The more you can become aware of the biases and assumptions going on in listeners’ minds, the more you can make your intentions explicit and reduce the chances that people will misjudge you.  If you don’t tell people what they need to know, their brains will fill in the blanks, creating a personality profile that may or may not be accurate. Too often, I’ve seen this happen with the executives I coach.

To overcome this, work hard to:

Anticipate and reflect on listeners’ likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, so you better understand and manage what they might be projecting onto you.

Work on emphasizing your good qualities to benefit from positive stereotypes and halo effects. Be strategic about the first impression you make.  Although possible, it’s hard work changing that first impression!

As always, I am interested in hearing about your experiences. You can contact me here or on LinkedIn.

About the Author:

Rose Cartolari is a Sr. Consultant, Facilitator, and C-Suite Coach with Executive Development Associates, bringing extensive experience in helping leaders create strategic growth for themselves and their organizations. Rose has a broad background developing and delivering tailored leadership development programs for clients ranging from multinational companies to corporate executives. Having lived and been educated in India, Indonesia, Somalia, the United States, and Italy, Rose is at home in many cultures.