Some of us get ourselves tied into knots worrying about how others perceive us – some of us sometimes, some of us chronically. The quote “What other people think of me is none of my business” is offered as an antidote to this all-too-human social anxiety – but is that good advice?
On one hand, it’s true that a part of people’s perception of you has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the internal workings of a particular individual’s mind. Maybe they don’t like you because you look like their ninth grade algebra teacher. Maybe they misread your tone, hearing an emotion they expected or feared to hear, or which they would have experienced had the roles been reversed. Maybe they don’t respect your contribution because they tend to focus on what’s wrong and neglect to see what’s right. And maybe once they formed this misperception, they just kept finding evidence to support it. Maybe someone doesn’t care for you, and they don’t even know why. As we explored recently, a large portion of our reactions and actions are based on rapid and unconscious thought processes. There are a lot of reasons why people may think the worst of you, which in fact don’t have much to do with you.
At the same time, worrying about others’ perceptions is an all-too-human concern because it DOES matter what other people think of you. Humans are highly social creatures, and our success as individuals and as a species relies on our ability to get along. We know this intuitively, instinctively. And in modern day-to-day life, we experience the truth of it: Likeable Larry is more likely to get that sweet project than Difficult Dan. Collectively, individual perceptions of us form our reputation, and this has significant impacts on our relationships and opportunities. If you’re perceived as a pushover, people may try to take advantage of you. If you are perceived as difficult to work with, people may avoid you, depriving you of information and opportunities to influence.
But there is something else important to examine here. When other people reflect their perceptions of us back to us, they are indirectly offering us feedback. Feedback, especially the critical variety, provides a chance to learn something. Maybe someone thinks we are a slacker because…we are really not pulling our weight on the team. Maybe someone has taken a dislike to us because…we are too curt in our requests. Maybe – just maybe – there is a painful grain of truth in their perceptions. Self-insight and self-awareness are the keys to growth. Growth is rarely comfortable. Sometimes you have to look, not in the mirror, but in the reflections of the faces of those around you to see a truth that will help you evolve into a better version of you.
As in all things, awareness and balance are key. If you get negative feedback, ask yourself the first hard question: might there be a grain of truth I resist seeing in this? Even if there is a complicated answer (partly it’s me and partly it’s them, which will no doubt be the most common answer), is there something I can learn here to do better and be more effective with this person or other people like them? Sometimes the answer is that you need to do something different. Sometimes the answer is that you need to let go and move on – not everyone’s opinion matters. One of the hard facts of leadership is that criticism comes with the territory. It’s your job to make decisions that may not always be popular. As the saying goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
Learning to navigate this fuzzy zone isn’t easy. It requires both humility and confidence. It demands that we be willing to change, but also know what we are willing to stand for.