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Dec 11, 2014

The One Thing You Need To Know, But May Be Afraid To Ask.

 What do the people you work with really think of you?

 ‘Why do I need to know that?’

 You might be thinking.

 ‘I am who I am. I do my best and I certainly can’t control what other people think about me.’


Yes, some of that’s true and I’ve no doubt you believe that you’re doing the best you can.

But what if there’s a gap between the impact you THINK you’re making on your colleagues and their perception of you?

There’s a danger that what you believe is your best might not be ‘perceived’ as the best you can do.

As challenging as it might feel to find out what your colleagues really think of you, it’s an important piece of information for you to know, particularly if you’re a manager or leader.

Because if there is a perception gap, you can and you should reduce it.

 ‘Hold on a moment.’

 I assume some might be thinking.

 ‘I don’t have the time or resources to conduct a 360-degree feedback process to find out if there is such a gap. Besides, they can often involve a large number of surveys with few tangible results.’



And I would agree. In fact Dr John Sullivan, Professor of Human Resource Management at San Francisco State University has concerns about the tool:

"It is a slow and time consuming process. Respondents are slow to fill out the forms and a skewed response occurs when only the unhappy respond. Anonymity does not allow for encouraging individual non-respondents to participate, resulting in a low response rate. It sounds good but there is no proof it works other than a lot of companies have tried it. It’s a poor substitute for unassisted 1 on 1 communication and can short circuit natural feedback channels."

So, my aim in writing this post is to offer you ONE, open question that you can easily ask your colleagues, clients and customers to ensure you’ll get the best piece of targeted feedback that you’ve ever received. Without having to conduct a 360.

Is Self-perception really Self delusion?

It’s no secret that we tend to both under and overestimate our personal contribution, talents and gifts. Everything from our driving skills, our height and weight and our knowledge about a subject to how much we’d be missed if we suddenly disappeared. In fact there’s a lot of research suggesting that our self-perception is often closer to self-delusion.

For example: Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago and Erin Whitchurch of the University of Virginia ran a study to discover whether people perceive themselves as more attractive than they actually are. Each participant was photographed and then presented with several pictures of themselves. Some of which had been digitally enhanced. The test subjects were asked to choose which picture was the original. Surprise, surprise! People tended to select the most enhanced version as the true representation of how they look...I know I would.

Research conducted by the psychologist Adrian Furnham at University College London revealed that males have a tendency to overestimate their intelligence by 5 points, while females underestimate their IQ by a similar margin.

And a study by Zuckerman and Jost at Stanford University suggests that people have exaggerated perceptions of their own popularity, particularly in comparison to the popularity of their own friends.

Finally, after conducting a study on the effects of over confidence David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University says:

" It is almost impossible for an individual left to their own devices to get self-assessment right.The problem is we do not see mistakes we are making. Here is the twist: When it comes to recognising really top performers we can’t judge just how superior their responses, their strategy, or their thinking is. We can’t recognize the best among us, because we simply do not have the competency to be able to recognize how competent those people are compared to us."

While deluding ourselves can sometimes be useful under certain circumstances, it’s generally less helpful in the workplace. Here are the two perception gaps for you to consider:

#1. The Positive Perception Gap – People think you have strengths and qualities that you don’t actually possess. While this seems like a good thing, it means our expectations of you are probably higher than you can meet and the danger is that you will eventually under deliver. In this case it is vital to reduce the gap by being honest and realistic with others about your current capacities and capabilities.

#2. The Negative Perception Gap – People don’t recognize the strengths and qualities you actually possess. Once you are clear about the real level of your contribution, the impact that you’re making and your true strengths, you can reduce the gap by looking for opportunities to tell a new story. One that confirms and establishes the correct perception of who you are and what you do.

So what is the magic question that will reveal if either of the two gaps applies to you?

It’s simply this…

 “How could I become a better (your role or job title here)?”

 Notice the wording of the question.  

 “How could I BECOME?

 is a much more effective way to ask for detailed feedback than...

 “What do I need to DO?

That small change will make a big difference because the response you’ll get from the latter version will more than likely be task focused. When what you actually need is feedback about your whole way of ‘being’ at work.

For example: If your question is: ‘How could I become a better project manager?” and the person replies, ’ You could take more time explaining things.’ You immediately know this is about the intellectual dimension.

You could then ask: ‘In what ways do I need to change how I explain things?’  (Intellectual)

Once they respond, follow that with: ‘What else would I need to change in terms of how I make you feel when you work with me?’(Emotional)

Finally you might finish with ‘ What else do you think I should prioritize to be a better project manager? (Intentional)

The most important thing to do when asking this question is to make it informal. You can gently drop it in conversation during a coffee break, or a spare moment after a meeting. You could even arrange to meet for lunch. The key is to be with the person in real time as they respond to your question. If you’re working remotely, then a webinar or Skype session would be the second best option. It’s also vital to thoroughly prepare yourself, so here are the 4 steps to discovering the reality of you:

Step # 1

 Grab a sheet of paper and draw the following grid.



Take a moment to reflect on how you think people perceive and experience you in 4 dimensions.

Physically – What impact do you think your behavior, body language and personal presence has on others? Include specifics like – I take care to make good eye contact. I smile often.

Emotionally - How do you think you make people feel when they work with you?

Intellectually – What do you consider to be your strengths when thinking about problems and communicating knowledge and information?

Intentionally – What do you believe people think is of the highest value for you at work?

Write your thoughts and beliefs about yourself in the relevant quadrants. Try to put something in each quadrant but don’t worry if there are blank spaces. You’ll fill them soon enough once you’ve asked the question. Now you are clear about your own view of yourself, it’s time for the reality check.

Feedback or Feedforward?

Top executive coach Dr Marshall Goldsmith has a view on feedback that I really like. He says:

"There is a fundamental problem with all types of feedback: it focuses on the past, on what has already occurred—not on the infinite variety of opportunities that can happen in the future. As such, feedback can be limited and static, as opposed to expansive and dynamic."


Typically the feedback most of us get at work is objective, data driven facts and statistical information related to the tasks we have to do. But in order to grow we don’t just need feedback, we also need some ‘feedforward’ to inspire new effort. Feedforward means not dwelling on what happened in the past because you can’t change that. It begins by getting honest opinions and asking for suggestions that will help you achieve a positive change in the future.

 Step # 2

Make a list of who you’ll invite to give you feedforward. Begin with people who are familiar with you and then progress to people who know you less well. The differences between the perceptions of people who know you well, as compared to those less familiar with you, will be very useful for identifying where the gaps really are.

 Step # 3

Begin planning when you might have your conversations. Don’t rush the process. You could take up to six months to get to everyone if required. Try to keep things as informal as you can while taking care to avoid being inappropriate or unprofessional.

  • Create a feeling of trust – This is vital as people will tend to avoid commenting on the impact you make on them if they don’t trust you. Particularly if it involves talking about your personal qualities.
  • Give them full permission - Assure the person that you will not comment on what they tell you and give them full permission to share any ideas they have for you. Your task is to simply listen and take notes.
  • Gently Prompt - To make sure they comment on each dimension, ask a few extra prompting questions. A good place to start would be to get people to think about your physicality and behavior. But remember, just listen and take notes.
  • Get lots of detail - Help the person to answer you with as much detail as they can so you can really get a sense of their experience of you. Keep in mind that the responses you’re after are more about how you’re perceived as a human ‘being’. You’re goal is to get at least 2 specific feedforward suggestions in each of the 4 dimensions.

 Step # 4

Once you feel you’ve had enough conversations for your purpose, start to collate your data and compare and contrast the results with your original 4D grid. Compare it with what people have suggested you could improve on. For example - If you wrote in the physical dimension that you think you make good eye contact and people have given you feedforward to make more eye contact – you’ve found a gap. After you finish reading through your notes ask yourself this question.

 “If I could choose to wake up in the morning with one of these gaps closed, which one would it be?”

 That’s the one to start working on.

 Finally, bear in mind that by asking that question you will already start creating positive perceptions. It will show you have confidence and courage and that you value other people’s opinions. It will also demonstrate your humility in being able to admit that you have more to learn and further to grow. These are fine qualities to be endowed with. I hope after reading this article you’ll be inspired and encouraged to ask the question that most people are afraid to ask.

I’m sure you’ll discover the results will be worth it!


Posted by TBM