Ever wonder why people treat you the way they do? A lot has to do with how you are perceived by others. Let me give you an example, years ago when I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio I would often drive up to Canada to visit customers along The King’s Highway 401 in lower Ontario. My point of entry and exit was Detroit and I would either take the Ambassador Bridge or Detroit–Windsor Tunnel to and from Canada. Regardless of the route I took, I noticed I would always be asked by the customs agents to pull my car over to the side where I would have to endure the hassle of a search. This went on for years until I realized it was probably my demeanor and expression on my face that caused me to be pulled over, which was tired and cranky looking. As an experiment, I approached the customs agents with a smile on my face, my window down, and was very chatty and approachable with them. Surprisingly, I was let through without any trouble, and I’ve never been pulled over again.
The point is, we primarily act on our perceptions, right or wrong, and regardless of the facts. How we are perceived by others is the basis by which others judge us, both in our personal and professional lives. It has been my experience that there are three attributes people use to judge each other:
1. Social Stature – representing our pedigree and, consequently, our place in society. People naturally act differently around someone who is perceived to be cultured and refined versus someone viewed as “trailer trash.” Its kind of like the difference of how people act in church as opposed to in a saloon. This is also indicative of why we distinguish people by classes (high/medium/low) and how we delineate workers as blue collar/white collar. People like to know what the pecking order is, whether it is in their personal or professional lives, so they can act accordingly. It denotes such things as superior/subordinate/equal relationships, thereby defining who we can dominate, who we cannot, and who we must coexist with.
2. Intelligence – this is an important factor in judging a person, particularly in the workplace where we are evaluated based on our knowledge, skill set and ability for taking instruction. We are either perceived as someone who can quickly grasp and implement concepts and techniques, versus someone who has trouble taking instruction and learning something.
3. Character – beyond intelligence is the perceived character of the individual, consisting of his ethical makeup, dedication and drive, along with his record of actions and decisions made. This denotes the person’s integrity, reliability, and responsibility. Unlike intelligence which denotes what a person is capable of doing, character defines what the person will do in fact. Let me give you an example, I used to know a brilliant guy with a photographic memory in the engineering department of a manufacturing company. His IQ scores were always head and shoulders above everyone else’s, but he had trouble applying his intellect. Instead, he was used by the company as nothing more than a walking encyclopedia who could recite complicated formulas and algorithms at a moment’s notice, yet had no idea how to use this knowledge in practice.
It is these three attributes, used in concert, which we use to evaluate someone, personally or professionally. It is the determining factors we use to communicate with someone, socialize with them, invest trust in, and delegate responsibility to. Managers use these elements to determine what a worker is capable of doing and assigning pertinent responsibilities. It is also what we use to evaluate a new neighbor, or meet someone for the first time socially or professionally. In a nutshell, it is what we use to “size people up.”
We should all be cognizant of how we are perceived by others and adjust where required to fit into the corporate or local culture, but we should also be wary of people masking their weaknesses by appearing or acting as someone they are not. I used to have a gentleman who worked for me in Customer Services who dressed to the teeth, was sharp in social etiquette, and was a pretty smart guy. The only problem was he was a poor performer. He talked a good game, but could never produce anything on time or to the satisfaction of our customers. He was a past master of facade, not substance.
Again, the point here is that people are judged by perceptions first, facts second (ask the tabloid media if you don’t believe me). Appearances are important and should be cultivated, be it the workplace or in our private lives, but we should also know that looks can be deceiving and, as such, we should also cultivate a track record of performance and credibility. Just remember, we are judged by all three attributes mentioned, not just one or two. Appearances mean little if people can see through the disguise.
Such is my Pet Peeve of the Week.
Keep the Faith!
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Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Copyright © 2009 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.