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No One Understands You and What to Do About It

By Heidi Grant Halvorson

(Harvard Business Review Press, 212 pages, $27.50)

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"You really do have to read this one, Jonathan."

That's how Columbia Business School social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson ends her latest book. Jonathan Halvorson is her husband, a successful executive who never reads books on management, innovation, motivation, and influence – including the ones she has written. She asked him one day what topic he would delve into.

"I suppose the one problem I haven't figured out a good solution for – the one that keeps coming up again and again – is how I come across to other people. I get the feeling that sometimes people think I'm being critical, or aloof, or disengaged, and that's not at all my intention. But I don't know how to fix it, because I don't understand what they are seeing," he responded.

Unlike her husband, most of us haven't given this issue much thought. We assume that people see us for the wonderful people we are. But they don't.

"The uncomfortable truth is that most of us don't come across in the way we intend. We can't see ourselves objectively, and neither can anyone else, " she writes in No One Understands You and What to Do About It. "Knowing how you are actually perceived – in an interview, on a sales call, in your everyday interactions with your boss and co-workers – can go a long way toward improving nearly every aspect of your working life."

The first reason is that you are a riddle wrapped in an enigma. You are not an open book – people can't read your mind. Indeed, when negotiators – who should be sharp at reading people – were asked about the other party's intentions, they guessed correctly only 26 per cent of the time. You are far from transparent and to be judgable you need to make information about yourself available to others that will provide evidence of the particular qualities you are trying to convey.

However, you need to be careful because a second problem is that your actions are a matter of interpretation. Research shows that people who like Barack Obama consider him intelligent and competent, while those who dislike him consider the U.S. President incompetent and a failure. So perceptions are shaped by feelings toward the individual. "To borrow a bit from Tolstoy, it would appear that while all your fans see you similarly, the haters each hate you in their own unique way," she said.

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As well, we tend to be cognitive misers, wanting to think only as much as we feel necessary. So not only are you hard to understand, but people observing you aren't willing to expend much effort puzzling you out. They succumb to assumptions, rules of thumb (people from an Ivy League university are smart), and stereotypes. They seek to confirm their biases.

Often they have an agenda that warps perception – in effect, a "lens" by which they view you. She focuses on three:

The trust lens: When people meet you for the first time or are still getting to know you, they are wondering whether they can trust you. Can they let their guard down with you? Are you friend or foe? And do you have what it takes to act on those positive or negative intentions? This is usually unconscious, happening very quickly – a primal response, dating back to prehistoric days when it could mean survival.

"Decades of research show that they are highly attuned into two particular aspects of your character, right from the get-go – your warmth and your competence. Your warmth – friendliness, loyalty, empathy – is taken as evidence that you have good intentions toward the perceiver. Your competence – intelligence, skill, effectiveness – is taken as evidence that you can act on your intentions if you want to," she said.

The power lens: When the person you are interacting with has more power than you, they have a straightforward agenda: Prove yourself useful to me or get out of the way. And she stresses this is not just power in the sense of business or government, but all relationships. Your goal is to show how you can help the more powerful person reach his or her goals.

The ego lens: The perceiver wants to view you in a way that allows him or her to come out on top. We do this when we dismiss a celebrity, without much evidence, as a jerk – it makes us feel superior. People are less worried by other folks who aren't that close to them, so their behaviour doesn't matter much (like a second cousin rarely seen) or whose achievements don't seem all that relevant (the friend who is an expert at playing the flute, something you care little about). But when the achievements are relevant and the relationship close, it can threaten the ego.

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The book offers lots of advice on those three lenses and the broader issue of how you are perceived by others. It's clearly written, based on research, with lots of examples. Perhaps Jonathan Halvorson should read it.

POSTSCRIPT

Leadership trainer Michael Lee Stallard explains the competitive advantage of empathy and understanding in Connection Culture (ATD Press, 134 pages, $29.95).

Innovation expert Rowan Gibson explores creative thinking in The 4 Lenses of Innovation (Wiley, 284 pages, $42).

In The Payoff Principle (Greenleaf, 264 pages, $29.95) Alan Zimmerman of the Institute for Management Studies presents a formula for success: Purpose + Passion + Process = Payoff.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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