Are Wrong Assumptions About You Damaging Your Career?
What assumptions are people making about you, and what can you do about that?
A young woman I’m mentoring, let’s call her Tara, asked me whether she should keep wearing her engagement ring to job interviews.
She had just gotten engaged in the middle of her job search and saw that once the interviewer noticed her ring, the whole conversation felt different.
Whether they asked about it or not, she felt sure they were making the assumption that she would soon start a family and be less committed to her career.
That frustrated her because she’s highly committed to her career and it was taking something very happy and making it into a negative for her.
I’ll tell you in a minute what I advised, but this made me realize that people are always forming impressions and making assumptions. People can’t help doing that and, frankly, we do it as well.
Make it work in your favor
So what really matters though is to make it work in your favor. You can do this by:
- Figuring out what people are likely to be assuming about you.
- Identifying those assumptions that serve you well versus the ones that don’t.
- Being proactive in addressing the ones that are not true and not helpful.
Let me share an example from my own career.
About five years into my career, I started noticing that things weren’t going quite as well as they had been.
I reflected on it and realized that people were making assumptions about me based on the stereotype of the “nice Chinese girl”, which meant sincere and hardworking, smart, quantitative and very good at math, and obedient and not very assertive.
Which assumptions are true and which ones are helpful?
I started asking myself, which ones of these assumptions are true and which ones of these are helpful?
- Sincere and hardworking: both true and helpful. I was in great shape there.
- Smart, quantitative and good at math: well, I was pretty good but my reputation or their assumption was probably a bit ahead of my actual capabilities. So I decided that, there, I needed to tread carefully and make sure that I was not taking on assignments where I had to be super quant, because I wasn’t.
- Obedient and not very assertive: well, this was the one that was a big problem for me. So I focused then on how can I be proactive about addressing this assumption that really doesn’t work well for me at all.
On the obedient front, I was not blindly obedient. In fact, I was probably more of the resourceful in getting things done category. So I needed to help people shift that assumption. I did this by saying things like, “Oh, Joe. You asked me to talk to Jim about this. Well, he was on vacation but what I did was find a different way to get to the same outcome.”
On the not assertive part, that was more difficult because it was absolutely true about me and that required a significant behavioral shift for me. And I did that by starting to change my behavior, such as going proactively to the assignments manager and requesting to be put on particular live deals, rather than sitting back and waiting for them to come to me.
Leave people with the accurate impression
What I told Tara was, yes, you can decide not to wear your ring. Plenty of people don’t wear their rings. Others wear their rings when they’re not even married or engaged. But if you want to wear your ring then what’s important is that you leave people with the accurate impression.
We started on this path by:
- Identifying the three most important reasons that these assumptions about Tara were wrong.
- Then we created a script for how to convey those.
She’s now equipped to convey the truth with confidence and address these assumptions in an authoritative, authentic way.
Now, since I don’t want to reveal Tara’s personal information, let me use my own situation from back in the day to illustrate.
So, for me, those three reasons would have been based on family heritage, cultural expectations and the fact that I’m actually very, very driven.
And my script would have been something along the following lines:
“I come from a long line of achievers. My father is a prominent scientist. My mother is a physician and my uncles are senior officers in government. And in a Chinese family of girls, I’ve always considered myself to be the son. My career is therefore hugely important to me and I’m very driven to succeed. I have a lot to live up to and I hope I can do that here.”
People are going to make assumptions about us. People are going to make assumptions about me.
They’ll make assumptions about you, and it’s your job to figure out what those assumptions are likely to be, and how do you convey your message in a way that lands accurately with people. By doing that, you can move onward and upward in your career.
Let me leave you with this question:
What assumptions are others making about you, and what myths do you need to dispel?
Please share your thoughts in the comments section below so that we can all help you to move ahead even faster.
I think this is great. What is important is to ask questions rather than just make assumptions or even assume what others think. Set the expectations at the outset if possible, being truthful and authentic, filling in the gap if needed to be or not being something one is not.
I had a client who recently found himself unemployed because he spent too much of his energy on trying to be nice and fit it; compare the company he worked for with the other organizations he previously worked for (not realizing each organization is different and has its own culture and his thinking was negative); and be truthful in that he lacked the skills required for his role and needed to make up the deficiency ASAP. There would have been time to resolve and not be let go had he realized his own perception in his thinking and being negative of others.
Great article as always! Thank you!
Thanks for sharing your experiences, Mustafa. And I also like your point about asking questions, setting expectations, and being authentic. Good advice!
Love the white background and the use of text…another step up!
Many thanks for the encouragement, Kevin!
Thanks- this was a really helpful exercise. I think this also really applies to entrepreneurs because people often make assumptions about your business based on how you dress or where you come from. I’m often conscious of how people are perceiving me and how I ‘should’ portray myself, but this exercise made it easy because I just had to separate assumptions from the truth, and then address the assumptions.
Glad that this was helpful to you. And you are absolutely right – this applies to entrepreneurs as well.
Come to think of it, dealing with people’s assumptions is pretty universal for all of us humans… Thanks for highlighting!