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

Hello everyone!  After a busy summer working with clients in the US, I am happy to be home! Reflecting on my summer, one topic kept jumping out wherever I went – perception: how others perceive us and how we can manage it, so…

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.  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:

  1. 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.
  2. Primacy Effect. First impressions disproportionately influence how we interpret and remember information.  People resist changing opinions once they’re formed.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).

What’s the Take-Away?  How to manage other’s 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!

What do you think? I’d love to hear your experiences. 

Renewing Yourself: The Power of Play 

image003I have found that remembering what play is all about and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human being. The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.” ~ Stuart Brown, MD, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Penguin Books, 2009.

By now, most of us are looking forward to a much deserved summer break – getting away from overheated brains and serious work. Why is it that we need to wait for summer to play? What ever happened to unbridled joy in our daily lives? Remember the fun of play we experienced as children? 

Much of my work, particularly with those “higher up” in an organization, are discussions about how to keep innovating and renewing ourselves as leaders. We all start out in life playing quite naturally, having fun with whatever’s available.  But by the time we start our careers, we have learned to be serious, to squelch our natural drive for fun. 

According to Dr. Brown, the opposite of work is not play. Play and work are mutually supportive. Play is not the enemy of work, in fact, neither can thrive without the other. We need the newness of play, the sense of flow, imagination, and energy of being in the moment

What do work and play have in common? Creativity! – the key to creating new relationships, skills, and making things happen. Many clients talk to me about their overwhelming sense of responsibility and competitiveness which buries their inherent instinct for variety and challenge, eventually leading to stress and burn-out. Recognizing our innate need for play can transform performance and quality of life. When we stop playing, we stop growing, and we begin dying.

There is power in play, even for the most serious of careers – so let’s start playing, get our kids playing, get our partners playing … and see what future we can create!

Have a fantastic Summer,

The Power Pose – The Gift of Living Big!

Strike a pose! Amy Cuddy, Associate Professor at Harvard business School (and compelling public speaker!) is trying to change lives through “power poses”. Her prolific research shows that so-called power poses (think All-Blacks Warrior “dance” before a game or the standard “Victory or Wonder Woman” stance) could make the difference between high performance or failure in the workplace as well in your personal life.

Cuddy has shown that we humans are biologically wired to mirror our state-of-mind in the way we look. Her talk, Make Yourself Big: How the Body Shapes the Mind is about her work in changing outcomes and behavior through a few simple changes in your body language. She claims we can change the impression we make by ‘thinking big,’ just before an important meeting or interview and this willful control of body language, in the long term, our sense of self.

In fact, there is a body of research that indicates that our body chemistry can be altered to produce a better sense of self-confidence and being in control, simply by changing our basic posture or stance.

For example, in one study, people were assigned to two groups: one with “high power” poses, and another to “low power” poses. Their hormone levels were tested (saliva sampling) and they were left to stay in their pose for two minutes. They were then asked to perform different behavioral activities such as take tests (students) do a job interview etc. You guessed it, the power posers were the most likely to do well – and by a large margin!

Their hormones were tested again and results showed “that power poses caused an increase testosterone levels by 20% and cortisol levels reduced by 25%. Testosterone is associated with confidence and cortisol is linked to stress. Low-power poses had the opposite effect, reducing testosterone by 10% and increasing cortisol by 15%”.

What I find remarkable is how powerful and effective these few minutes have proven to be for a huge range of people. The science indicates that 2 minutes in a pose every day has a significant, positive effect on your dominance and status. I have found this 2 minute method to be incredibly successful with both highly experienced professionals facing critical challenges such as media interviews, job search and delicate negotiations, as well as with young students, uncertain and nervous in social skills and the world around them.

Coaches are constantly driving clients to examine and master their non-verbal language as part of the journey to create a series of meaningful life outcomes. Although the mechanisms that link body posture to body biochemistry and human interaction are not clear, there is abundant clinical evidence that it does and that even tiny tweaks become big changes. So as Amy Cuddy has said “don’t fake it till you make it, fake it till you BECOME it! What a great gift to your self.


The Wolf You Feed

Every year as we near Thanksgiving, I try harder to focus my thoughts on gratitude and kindness. I always feel a need to “step back” from my daily worrying, fixing, yearning, striving to change what doesn’t work in my life. This time of the year, I often think of the “The Wolf You Feed”, an old Cherokee Indian tale:

wolfOne day a Cherokee grandfather was telling his grandchild about a battle going on inside of people. He said, “My son, inside us all there is a battle raging between two wolves. One is evil: anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good: joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson, after thinking about it for a minute, asks “which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee replies “the one you feed”.

I am struck by how much, as humans, we focus so much on all that is missing in our lives, on what we want but don’t yet have. How much energy do we spend on self-improvement? On fixing ourselves? Smoothing over our rough spots? How much good does it do us to spend so much time on who we aren’t rather than who we are?

Of course we all have areas we need to work on, and personal growth is critical for meaningful and fulfilled living. But, usually, we tend to be harsh task masters with ourselves. We are often quick to criticize, not forgive or concede one inch. We tend to nit-pick every little detail. And, paradoxically, this only results in increased stress, anxiety, tension, negativity self-doubt.

Perhaps worst of all, we don’t even achieve the results that we want. Studies in the talent and leadership development arena show that the larger headways in growth and excellence come about when people expand their strengths rather than fixating on their weaknesses. In other words, we will be more likely to get the results we want when we focus on what we have, what our goals are and get to work! (And frankly, even if we don’t get the results we want, being positive means that we are living a happier life, so we feel better)

Seems simple, doesn’t it? Beating ourselves up leads to the permanently dissatisfied place of “never enough” whereas compassion, gratitude and understanding lead to peace….and on purely practical terms: better results. So why don’t we always focus on the positive?

It’s that little ingrained wolf in us that is now a part of our goal-oriented, efficiency driven culture. Human beings are hard-wired to look for what’s missing. But the search for what ifs often robs us of the what is. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that in life you always have to be happy and cheerful all the time. Sad, stressful things happen all the time and it is natural that we react. I am only saying that we can, with a great deal of dedication and practice, learn to control and be in charge of our attitudes and approach to ourselves. We can choose which wolf we feed.

Keep Calm: We’re Going Back to School

Re-entering “real” life in September can be tremendously stressful for families. The sudden onslaught and re-uptake of busy responsibilities and hectic schedules makes this transition period one of the most anxious and tense times of the year.corona
But by acting intentionally and keeping calm, you can avoid many bumps in the road and leverage simple strategies to help manage, and (even enjoy!) the transition into school or work. Here are few tips that have been popular over the years with both friends and professional clients alike.

Name it and Claim it

  • Recognize up front that this is a messy, tiring period. Just as you are sore when you begin working-out again after a period of absence, so will you be “mentally distressed” as you get back to the constraints of routines and chores. Feeling tired and overwhelmed, coupled with the physical exertion of getting back into the swing of things, translates into anxiety and strain. Just recognizing the symptoms for what they are goes a long way to help you remain calm, as you learn to see that your behavior and feelings are natural for what is happening in your life: This IS a difficult period. It is NORMAL to be deflated and overwhelmed.
  • Your children are also dealing with a tangled heap of emotions which they don’t recognize. Fear, excitement, anticipation and uncertainty can mean over-stimulation, which results in crankiness, tiredness and tantrums. Recognizing that this is just a coping mechanism and staying composed and unperturbed will allow you to be a source of reassurance and comfort to your children.

 Manage the Manic

  • The “rush period” of overstuffed schedules and early alarm clocks are major anxiety triggers. So preempt the madness – make a huge planner and write down everything. Get the whole family involved in working out the logistics of the crunch times: how will your family plan waking up, eating breakfast, getting out of the house at the same time? What needs to be done the night before? Do a visual “dress rehearsal” with them so that they “see” their role in this process. Involving the kids allows them to own the process and builds life habits that are critical.
  • Do everything 15 Minutes earlier. Working against tight deadlines only creates more stress and anxiety. Reward everyone (including yourself!) who is ready ahead of schedule – 5 minutes of music listening? 5 extra minutes of screen time? Newspaper reading?

 Talk it out

  • Keeping things inside increases anxiety and fretfulness. Talk to those close to you about how you’re feeling. Talk to your kids and about their worries, fears and anxieties and share yours with them (obviously in an appropriate manner. The goal is to share concerns, not off-load adult fears) Verbally sharing not only diminishes anxiety, but also lays the foundation for dialogue and conversation, which in later years will be important. Make sure to start talking well before re-entry, and into the first few weeks if school/work. Make this process informal, the best results come when you are discussing while “doing something else” such as cooking, walking, drawing etc.

Fun-tastic Family Time.

In times of turbulence and uncertainty, create pockets of joy and tranquility. You need to plan and organize these up front! Pamper yourself and your family by creating and scheduling fun things at home – some friends have an annual 1st day back to school barbeque to discuss “best” and “worst” things of the day, our family does a “funniest/scariest thing that happened to me today” for the entire first week of school. Do your own version – movie night at home, game night, or just dinner together – and don’t underestimate the value of just hanging out together: an intimate cocoon is soul-nourishing for adults and children alike – and the most likely time your kids will talk!

Good Luck!