How to Manage People’s Perceptions of You
These days, it’s more important than ever to be able to manage people’s perceptions of you.
Whether it’s when you’re interviewing for a job, getting senior managers to notice you in the right way or getting hired by a new client, managing perceptions is key for your career success.
As I was working my way up the organization, I started noticing that people were perceiving me in ways that weren’t completely favorable.
For example, they’d look at me and see a short Chinese woman and assume that “she must be hardworking and great at math, but very humble and won’t say much”. Not exactly the description for someone on the “fast track”, and my career suffered for a while.
Until I discovered that being able to manage the way others perceive you is a key career skill.
But how do you go about doing it?
A great way to manage perceptions is to create your own narrative
Your narrative is simply a storyline or set of stories about who you are, what you bring to the table and what people can expect you to be like as a colleague, leader or team member.
The reason it’s so powerful is that when people don’t have information, their brains automatically fill in the blanks. And that means they make up their own stories about you.
Instead, you want to fill their heads with a more accurate story. That’s where creating your narrative is essential.
Now, you might be wondering where your resume fits in. Isn’t that where you’re supposed to tell the story of your career?
Here’s the reality.
No one gets a job or promotion based on their resume alone
While your resume plays a role, it’s more about the “what” – as in a list of what you’ve accomplished. So many of us struggle to create one that feels compelling and unique because it’s two-dimensional. A set of words and phrases on a piece of paper or the digital equivalent.
And as someone who has read a lot of resumes, it can feel like one person’s list of accomplishments could just as well apply to many others.
In contrast, your narrative is about your why and a little about the how you go about things. It’s your stories, not the facts, that will give people insights into who you are and what makes you you. Your narrative is what brings you into vibrant 3-D focus while your resume represents you in 2-D.
The stories you tell need to feel authentic to you and share insights into the real and amazing person that you are.
So how do you go about creating your narrative?
The best stories are ones that energize you when you tell them
For architect Mike Gibson, things changed when he made the shift from talking about things he’s accomplished (the “what”) and instead started talking about what he really likes about his job (the “why”).
He was getting bored talking about the list of the projects he’s worked on, the buildings he’s designed and the awards he and his team have received. His potential clients were probably bored of hearing something similar from other architects. He was pretty sure “the list” wasn’t differentiating him.
That’s when he switched to talking about what he likes about his job. Which is his love of hearing about what people do in the buildings he designs and the joy he feels from knowing that what he does helps people do what they do.
All of a sudden, he was more excited to share his story – the why behind the what. And people not only gained insight into Mike and his bigger purpose, but they were also more drawn to Mike and interested in exploring opportunities to work together.
As Mike discovered, positive energy attracts people and opportunities to you.
Another approach to creating your narrative is to use it as a vignette that illustrates a key trait or capability you have.
Let your narrative give people insight into the core of who you are
Earlier on in my career, interviewers, senior managers and colleagues would often dismiss me as a “nice Chinese girl” who works hard and won’t make waves. It’s not exactly the stuff that gets you on the fast track in your career!
I remember sitting in an interview, feeling frustrated that the interviewer was clearly still skeptical about my drive and toughness.
Out of desperation, I found myself telling him about my family and the long line of high achievers I was trying to live up to… my father who is a leading scientist in his field, my mother who became a pediatrician at a time when very few women went to medical school, my uncles who held senior government roles, and my grandfather who was a university president.
As I spoke, the interviewer leaned forward in his chair and nodded. This was something he could relate to and I ultimately got that job.
Your stories can even come from things unrelated to work
Another story that’s helped me get the point across about my drive and love of a challenge is from our family trip to Rome. As we walked through the city, I kept noticing long flights of stone steps that connected one part of the city with another road higher up the hill.
When I looked at them, all I wanted to do was to sprint up them as fast as I could, get to the top, then come back down and do it again. In fact, I actually did that “double session” while my family waited at the bottom step!
So give yourself permission to think broadly about which stories to use. They can come from any part of your life, as long as they’re true. And you’ll find it useful to have multiple narratives to suit specific situations and points you want to make.
But what if you don’t have any stories?
As part of the human species, you are a born storyteller. And the best stories are probably the ones you take for granted as being “not that interesting”. If you struggle to find stories that highlight the perceptions you want to establish, ask people who know you well for help.
Assuming they have accurate perceptions of that particular characteristic you want to convey, they’re likely to be able to give you examples of when they’ve seen you exhibit your famous creativity, persuasiveness or leadership. Then sift through them and see which you want to try out first.
Just don’t make the mistake of waiting until your stories are perfect
Stories are meant to be told, and they will only get better if you tell them. So don’t wait to unveil them.
If you’re uneasy, then start with trusted friends or total strangers you’ll never see again. But do practice your stories out loud. Notice people’s reactions. Make adjustments and tell the stories again. Rinse and repeat. Keep revising until you feel comfortable that the narratives you create represent the real you.
Something amazing happens when you finally get down to the set of stories that feel true to you. The only way to find them is to put them out there and see how they feel and how they land.
Just make sure you use the stories you create so you can keep improving them and learning which ones work best with whom and at what times.
So how about you?
What narratives can you create to give others a glimpse of who you are, what makes you tick and what you’d be like to have on the team?
Leave a comment and let me know.