Two questions to think about:
1. How often do you think about how others see you?
2. How much do you care?
How we think others see us can have a big impact our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour (1,2). That makes sense, because if you think your coworker finds you incompetent, you might act differently toward him/her, right?
This kind of dynamic underpins part of my research. Over the past year, I’ve been interviewing professional women to find out how they think their colleagues see them, and what impact that might have on them at work. As you can imagine, loads of interesting issues come up (I’ll be writing about those later!). However, coupled with a sigh of resignation and maybe an eye-roll, to the questions above I often get responses like:
1) Too often: I wish I didn’t think about it.
2) Too much: I wish I didn’t care.
Of course that’s a highly condensed version of their answers, but you’ve got the gist of it. I’d answer exactly the same way. I know that at work (and also when I should be sleeping at night) I’ve spent far too much valuable brainpower in rumination mode: was my tone too negative in the last meeting? Did I come across as competent? Do they think I’m: too young, too opinionated, too pushy, too quiet, too bubbly, too ‘American’….”fill in the blank with your own neuroses“.
Unfortunately how people perceive you does tend to matter at work, particularly when it comes to getting promoted or rewarded, getting offered the ‘good’ projects, or to winning customers. Haven’t we all had that experience when the self-promoting but under-performing coworker got the glory while you, the hard-working and under-recognised over-performer wept in the shadows? So it’s not necessarily a bad thing to think about how you come across to people, and whether others really see ‘you’, so to speak. But it is a bad thing indeed to let this consume you, and particularly when it happens to be about useless, negative, or irrelevant information.
So with all this worry about how others regard you, you first have to ask yourself: is this doing me more harm than good? It’s a fine balance – how do I put thought into how I’m regarded, without completely distracting and stressing myself with thoughts about how others see me? This worry can consume you, and exposure to most modern media (particularly as a woman) will leave you believing that you should obsess about that one wrinkle on your forehead, or the size of your thighs (read: irrelevant to most workplaces). The more cognitive resources you devote to thinking about the impression you make, the less you have to dedicate to – potentially – more useful things.
For fun I’ve put together a cheesy little flow-chart to help you determine whether your pre-occupation with how others see you is worth the effort. For many of us who wish we didn’t care but unfortunately do, this might help save some time and energy. I fully intend to consult it during my next internal-drama.
More reading and references:
(1) King, E. B., Kaplan, S., & Zaccaro, S. (2008). Metaperceptions in diverse work groups: Intrapersonal perspectives and intragroup processes.
(2) Kenny, D. A. (1994). Interpersonal perception: A social relations analysis: The Guilford Press.