Why we struggle to understand each other at work

Social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson wants you to find someone at work who has known you for a long time and ask them to complete the following sentence: “If I didn’t know you better, I’d think that you were … .”

Most of us would hope to hear things like “a movie star” or “an acclaimed novelist” or “Thor.” But Halvorson, who is apparently hell-bent on ruining my dream of being mistaken for Thor, says we’re more likely to hear things that bum us out. Like “cocky.” Or “flaky.” Or “kind of a jerk.”

This is the often-awkward collision between perception and reality. We see ourselves a certain way and assume everyone else sees us that way as well. But that’s rarely the case.

And what we see in others tends to be off base as well. The bottom line is this: We kind of stink at understanding each other, and that causes a lot of problems in the workplace.

In her new book “No One Understands You And What to Do About It,” Halvorson writes: “Statistically speaking, there are only weak correlations between how others see us and how we believe we are seen. And while I don’t actually know what your colleagues, your partner, or anyone else thinks of you — I do know that you don’t know either.”

In an interview, Halvorson, associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School, said the key is “admitting you have a problem.”

“It’s about beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem when it comes to perception,” she said. “How wrong we are in assuming that people see us the way we see ourselves. When you unpack that and consider what the other person’s brain has to do to figure you out, you realize what an enormous task is involved in that. You think you’ve been misunderstood before, but you’ve actually been misunderstood way more than you think you have.”

Things break down because our brains tend to create shortcuts.

We make assumptions about people, often based on first impressions. We group people into categories — smart, chatty, untrustworthy — and then stick to that categorization even if it doesn’t truly fit the person in question.

Also, Halvorson writes, “other people will assume you share their opinions and attitudes, but not their abilities and moral character. With respect to the latter, they believe they are more talented and less corruptible than you are. Try not to take it personally.”

If you’re honest with yourself, this sounds familiar. It’s not that we’re intentionally putting ourselves on a pedestal and giving other people short shrift. We’re victims of the way our brains function.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t train our brains to function differently.

Halvorson presents three steps to improve the way you perceive your colleagues. (Or anyone, for that matter.)

— Don’t judge people too quickly. Allow some time to actually get to know someone before forming an impression.

— Commit to being fair. As Halvorson writes, “A simple reminder to yourself to be fair when you judge someone else is enough to activate the goal and diminish your unconscious bias. Make it a mantra, something you say before you walk into any meeting.”

— Watch out for what’s called “confirmation bias.” It’s basically relying on your impression of someone and then seeing in that person only things that confirm that impression.

It takes some work to learn to sidestep your brain’s natural tendency to make swift judgments.

“Like almost everything in life, it’s going to take some time and some practice because it’s new and it has to become a habit,” Halvorson said.

And you’ll also need to work on how you’re being perceived.

“If there’s a way in which we come across incorrectly more than any other it’s that we come across colder than we think we are,” Halvorson said. “I talk in the book about how it’s important to come across with warmth, not as in being a huggy, fuzzy, bunny, but in how you convey to people that you have good intentions toward them, that you’re a friend and worthy of being trusted. Our intuitions at work are strongly geared toward looking competent, and that can make us look less caring than we are.”

Confirming to me that she’s awesome, Halvorson illustrated this point using characters from “The Simpsons”:

“If you want to be anyone on ‘The Simpsons,’ you want to be Lisa. She’s competent and smart, but she’s also honest and compassionate and kind. If you don’t send the warmth signals that Lisa sends, then you’re Mr. Burns. You’re cold and competent.”

That advice is, as Mr. Burns would say, excellent.

We’re loathe to ever admit we’ve read people wrong, or that we’ve projected a version of ourselves that’s less than stellar. But think of the problems our misperceptions create, not to mention the bad feelings.

This is a skill that requires humility and practice, but it’s logically worth the time.

So get to work. If you need me, I’ll be figuring out how to make my co-workers perceive me as Thor.

About The Writer

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at rhuppke@tribune.com or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.

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