How you can improve your work image

By Angelo Kinicki Weatherup/Overby Chair in Leadership Do your co-workers consider you a good or bad colleague? Are you viewed as competent or not? Are others drawn to you for advice, or do they avoid you like the plague? Most of us are perceived to be a certain way by those around us, even if they don't know us well. This is the nature of social perception. And many people believe that "perception is reality." People come up with perceptions simply by comparing their memory of your behaviors and characteristics against their existing picture of what qualities are appropriate or ideal. The process can have a big impact on the decisions we make about others and the decisions they make about us. This has implications for our relationships and careers. Sadly, many people completely underestimate the importance of perception. They do and say whatever they want, but fail to consider how their actions and words might be perceived by others. For example, a friend of mine, a vice president for a large company, was dinged on her performance appraisal for wearing dangly earrings on one day during the year. Her boss said he perceived that it made her look "trampy." I thought the earrings looked just fine. An acquaintance recently told me, "I don't care what people think about me; all I have to do is deliver results at work." He believes it is OK to take advantage of others, if it helps him accomplish his goals. This tainted my own view of the person, because I think treating people well is as important as delivering results. His latest job search took many months, likely because of his expressed attitude, which didn't match up to other people's perceptions of a good worker either. We all know people who've been judged for lesser violations. I have seen people's careers derail because of the clothes they wore to work. I have observed people being punished for expressing views contrary to the boss' opinions. I've personally been criticized for showing too much positive emotion about a subject. In all of these cases, negative consequences happened because of social perception, based on others' existing ideal images. The trickiest aspect of perception is that different people can have varying perceptions of the same person or event based on our own differences in values, cultural heritage, needs, attitudes, knowledge and even mood, among other factors. Now that you know this, let's consider how you can use knowledge of the perception process to enhance your personal and professional effectiveness: • Understand that people make judgments about you all the time. It's natural. You can create more positive impressions by considering the potentially different perspectives held by others before making comments. • Recognize that your physical appearance, behavior, tweets and e-mails can also affect your image and what others think about you. Be mindful that other people will interpret your behavior and words according to their own beliefs. • Be careful about the emotions you show at work. Anger generally is not a good emotion to display. Too much positivity can also be interpreted as unrealistic or silly. Emotions should be appropriate for the situation at hand. • Your good intentions may be interpreted negatively. For example, an attempt at displaying leadership may be viewed as a power grab. I find it helpful to state my intentions when interacting with others about important or controversial issues. This can change the power-grab interpretation into one of positive influence. • In situations where you will be evaluated, such as a job interview, performance review or promotion opportunity, learn about what the evaluator believes are the desired characteristics of a good applicant or performer. I am continually surprised at how many people do not ask their boss about expectations. Remember, you want to closely match the "desired" employee characteristics and to highlight your own best qualities in those areas. • If you manage others, realize that your employees may display low engagement and performance if they have perceptions of being treated unfairly. Perceptions of fairness should be tracked and considered in managerial decisions. This can be done by using employee surveys or by simply having honest conversations with people. Remember, social perception is our reality at work. It's never too late to learn how to manage your image. First published in The Arizona Republic, September 6, 2014