Leadership Tactic #76: Know Who Others Think You Are

A line jumped off the pages of the July/August edition of Inc. Magazine. It was written by Bob Sutton, a leadership expert, when asked if there is a single trait that every leader should possess:

The ability to understand how you come across to others.


How many times have you met someone who clearly had no idea how loud, annoying, aggressive, smelly, overdressed, greasy, etc they are? Or on the flip side, someone is completely unaware of how beloved they are, how lusted after they are, or brilliant they are?

I think it’s our personal responsibility to understand how we come across to others. You may have the best intentions in the world, but if you continually offend people or push them away, you’re disrupting human connection.

What do other people see when they look at you? How do you come across in conversation? In e-mails?

E-mail in particular is a really tough medium for managing how you come across to others. I learned this the hard way countless times at my old job, and even sometimes at my current job. I think it’s natural for Thinkers (opposed to Feelers on the Myers-Briggs spectrum) to just say the facts, blunt and obvious. But that isn’t always the best way to communicate if we want someone to hear what we’re saying. In fact, when sending really sensitive (but necessary) e-mails now, I often have Feeler coworkers review the e-mail before I send it.

Have you ever come across differently than you intended? Have you ever had an epiphany regarding the way people perceive you?

15 thoughts on “Leadership Tactic #76: Know Who Others Think You Are”

  1. I think that it does happen. You can be misjudged for the smallest of things but you do make a good point that some if not most of the misconceptions can be prevented. Email review is a good idea. I also go over my notes for verbal cues and body language items. I will do a mock review of a script or a pitch and offer guidance. Or, if I am pitching, I will practice in front of several audiences. Regardless though, you have to accept that some things will be out of your control. =)

  2. Well, as far as business goes, right? I did a presentation and I adapted the material to the audience, but I received feedback that claimed I was opinionated. Overly opinionated I mean. The thing is that with this topic, you needed to offer an opinion to reiterate the message. I was educating the crowd on Social Security depleting (in my Financial Services life). And apparently, this caused a bit of panic. Back to your question, I am opinionated but people tend to sometimes see that as a bad thing.

    Also my writing partner loves to tease me as being bossy. I worked on that. I don’t boss people around so much as I am very direct verbally.

    Email wise, I have yet to have a problem. Knock on wood. =)

    Ultimately, all you can do is ask for opinions and do what you can to moderate communication. Yet, you also run the risk of diluting the message as in my aforementioned example. -shrug-

    And so it goes…

    • Good answer. I think the key is that it sounds like those people FELT like you were overly opinionated and your writing partner FEELS like you are bossy. Regardless of your intentions, you have to be aware of the way you make those people feel and adjust the way you communicate so they don’t feel that way. You can’t control someone else’s feelings, obviously, but you can improve the way you communicate so their feelings don’t get in the way of connecting with you.

  3. Well, I agree with the prognosis but again, you run the risk of not being clear. Communication is a balancing act. In the first instance, you have to err on the side of precision. In the second, not so much. Besides, the conversation in point, I felt he needed a nudge. lol

  4. Good point. We actually spend a significant amount of time in our Communication Skills and Leadership Fundamentals classes talking about perception and topics integrally connected to it. Even those of us who are conscious of perception tend to stray toward believing we are how we want to be perceived over time. I assume my voice sounds a lot like George Clooney until I listen to my voicemail recording and realize it’s probably closer to Gilbert Gottfried 🙂

    • Exactly. It’s an art. And you have to remember that there’s a two way street. Not only is the message something to be customized as well as how you convey it, but the audience needs to be receptive. As an example to add on to the presentation instance, this group had been through 3 financial advisories and/or plan administrators. Preconceived notions are a hurdle in themselves and they were quite political as well. So, you can only do your part the best you can.

    • Trev–That’s interesting that we stray toward believing we are how we want to be perceived.

      The voice thing is a great example. I’m sure the vast majority of people are surprised by the way their voice sounds when they hear it recorded. I imagine my voice being like James Earl Jones, but really it’s much more high pitched.

  5. Agreed that perception is reality. In 2011, I asked friends & peers to fill out an online 360 survey about me. Specifically, what were the traits that I exhibited. They were asked to select the top 5 of a list of ~50 personal attributes, and the top 5 of a list of 50 skills. There were also asked to provide some textual responses of strengths and weaknesses, and analogies (if Red was a car, what kind of car would he be, and why?” The aggregation of these traits would suggest a personal “Brand” based on these people’s perceptions. The base survey was free & online. They offered additional analysis for a fee. It was called “360 Reach.” I found the results very insightful.

    • I thought about that survey as I was writing this entry, actually. Did you get a lot out of it? What was the number one thing you learned that you otherwise wouldn’t have known about?

      • Most of the attributes and skills that people identified asparts of my personal “Brand” were things that I agree with. But the textual explanations of weaknesses and the “why” part of the analogies were insightful.

  6. Jamey, I’m curious, what is your Myers-Briggs? Can I venture to guess either INTP or INTJ? I’m an INFP, I think it’s pretty accurate actually. Yes, being self-aware and also aware of how others perceive you is really important but sometimes you also have to draw the line and realize not everyone will understand the decisions you make or how you come across. Have you read the book on Introverts, Quiet: The Power of Introverts? It’s on my list.

    • Jen–I’m an INTJ (low I and N, high T and J). You make a great point–it’s important to know that no matter how hard you try, you can’t get inside someone else’s mind and change their perception of you. I think the best you can do is be aware of how they perceive you.


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