The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


January 2014

Changing the View of You

Something can always be done to change impressions

By Andrew Silberman

A reader asked: “What can be done to change perceived perceptions?”

The short answer? Nothing. Unless you’re a master of misdirection, what others see depends on them, not on you.

However, on closer look at this important question, we’ll discover that a better answer is: it depends. (This was also the correct answer to several final exam questions on an MBA course I took 25 years ago).

There is always something you can do, even if it’s not so obvious. What the solution depends on, and what you can do about perceived perceptions are the targets of this column.

First, let’s face facts: perceptions are real. Interviewers make snap judgments in microseconds and then proceed to find supporting evidence that backs up their judgments during an hour-long conversation.

Bosses all too often base annual performance evaluations on their most recent perceptions of how a subordinate is doing on the job. And elections are won or lost over a candidate’s perceived empathy, leadership, or some other sought after quality based on very limited real information.

Yes, perceptions are real. They may be wrong, but it makes no difference.

According to the Mirriam-Webster online dictionary, perception is “the way you think about or understand someone or something.”

And as for “perceived,” it means to “interpret or look on (someone or something) in a particular way; regard as.” So we’re dealing with a difficult task: how can you change the way someone else interprets the way they regard you?

This hard task requires superior soft skills.

Two cases of misperceptions
Let’s look at two real-life cases (I’ve changed the names). If one resembles someone you know, please share this article with them. And if one hits too close to home, reread it and give the 3D exercise below a shot.

Dave Pendleton was on the verge of being demoted, transferred, or let go from his senior post here in Tokyo.

Steve, his new manager, perceived Dave as unreliable and unable, or unwilling, to compile a strong management team or a strategic plan for the future.

After just four coaching sessions, Dave was making serious progress. He delegated several key tasks to a high potential subordinate and checked in with his manager several times to report on his changes.

The initial result? Steve saw the delegation as Dave “not being in the driver’s seat” and his checking in as “still needing a lot of guidance.”

We video-recorded Toshi Kamatsu during an interview and again during a presentation as part of his Global Readiness® Profile (GRP).

On receiving the results and viewing the recordings, he said: “The strangest thing is that the guy in the video looks depressive. He looks like he’s suffering. But that’s not how I felt at all. I was enjoying myself!”

So what can Dave and Toshi do?

In the case of Toshi, the perception was negative while the real feeling inside him was positive. And as he discovered, how could anyone sense the reality beyond the perception?

The simple solution could have come straight from Robert Fulgham’s book, All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

I asked Toshi if he knew the children’s song “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” He said he does and that there is the same song and tune in Japanese.

Not quite. In the English version, the last part of the song says, “If you’re happy and you know it then you really ought to show it, if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.”

However, my understanding of the end of the Japanese version is akin to “If you’re clapping your hands everyone will feel happy.”

Some may say the nuance differs between the two songs, when in fact the entire meaning is lost in translation. Or maybe the songwriters here know Japanese culture enough to avoid the promotion of showing your emotions.

However, Toshi can do something to change his perception in a global organization. He’s begun working on his body language, his tone of voice, and his word choice to convey the positive emotions he feels inside.

We know that smiles are contagious and mirror neurons work inside every human being. Toshi knows his next role requires strong leadership and he wants to see in himself the kind of leader he would follow. He’s already taken positive steps in this direction.

But what about Dave Pendleton? First, we advised that he speak to his boss; clarify the actual perception and specify what kinds of actions would serve to alter the perception Steve has of Dave.

Second, Dave needed some slack; a buffer of time during which he could implement new actions, seek new results, and be evaluated fairly. We suggested a six-month period for this, although it could take some people more or less time.

Finally, Dave needed to clearly communicate the actions he’s taking, how they are connected to the misperceptions he feels his manager has of him.

Do these actions guarantee success? Of course not. Perception is in the eye of the perceiver. But these actions at least give Dave and Toshi a chance to change others’ views.

If you’re facing a boss, subordinate, colleague, family member, or friend who you think has the wrong view of you, do the exercise below.

3D, three-step exercise
Discover: find out what their perception really is. How exactly does the other person or group see you? How do you know that you’re not misperceiving their perception of you?

Get them to articulate their perception. A simple questionnaire such as one we use at the end of our Quick Team Check can work. For example, ask your team about your participation level in meetings. Is it too much, too little, or just right?

You don’t need to wait for the dreaded 360-degree feedback for this. If it’s more personal, such as in Dave and Toshi’s cases, ask the person or people involved what their perception is of you, and thank them for their response. Do not defend, correct, or anything other than offer thanks at that moment.

Decide: does this person’s or this group’s perception of you really matter? If it’s your boss, customer, or family member, it probably does. For most others, however, who cares? If you believe that their perception matters, go to step three.

Do: let the people know you understand that some of your actions have caused what you believe is a misperception of your actual character or intent.

You are going to do everything possible to alter that perception, although you know that their perception is always up to them.

You will be changing certain behaviors and will be asking for their feedback. You know it will take time and you’re willing to invest this time in exchange for the rewards of a better relationship.

A final tip: remember that if you want someone else to think positively about you, first think positively about them. Can you? Do you see their positive intent? Can you show that you share the same values or the same goals or both?

Get on the same side of the table, both literally and figuratively. And enjoy the process of developing your soft skills—the abilities that help you solve hard tasks.

AndrewDividerAndrew Silberman is an elected governor of the ACCJ and president and chief enthusiast of the AMT Group—the developers of the Global Readiness® Profile.