Don’t put me in that box (Part 2): worrying about what others think

A lot of my posts over the next while will be my research-related findings/ideas/rants. One of the frustrating things about the PhD is that you write up articles pretty much only for the academic world. And how many of us outside of universities read academic papers? And unpublished academic papers at that?  Um, pretty much never. Alas, I want to actually write some things that I can point colleagues, students or friends to when they ask to read some of what I’ve been working on for the last – too many – years. The academic papers might be scarily boring.

Onward. In the last post I introduced part of my PhD research. For one study, I interviewed 21 senior women leaders (working in big corporations in Australia) about things like: (1) how they’re seen by their-mostly male-colleagues, (2) whether they like (or dislike) it, and (3) what they do – if anything – to manage other’s perceptions (of them).

Some interesting findings for today’s post:

1. The ‘what others think’ worry.  Most of the women I interviewed thought a lot about how others perceived them. The spectrum ranged from a niggling in the back of their mind, to full-on worry constantly when at work. For example, one CEO stated: ”

“I used to worry – I used to worry about what every single person thinks. In fact I used to worry myself into a tizz about what everybody thought of me.  If I worry, I don’t sleep, and then of course its a bit of a spiral because your’e not in control during the day, being worried more, and I mean — it’s horrid really. You you’re better NOT to worry about it as much…but I still do worry”.  

And another senior director:
“I think about it more than I’d like to admit. It eats me up inside, it’s hard to ignore. I wish I could be more black and white about it, you know, less invested in what people think. But I am.”

Lets face it, our career progression tends to be tied to how certain people think of us. So how do we balance a healthy “concern” in how we’re seen by important others , with becoming over-the-top worried or consumed by it? When we worry too much about something like this, it sends our “cognitive load” over the top. Basically, it takes up brainpower. If we only have so many brain resources to dedicate to important issues at any given point of time (say you’re in a big negotiation or exam) and really need to use your brain for that purpose, consuming brain resources with things like “how do they see me” can impact performance. It’s normal (and in some cases helpful!) to care — personally, I think that those who care about how they’re being received as a teacher, or in a negotiation for example, can make the decision to do something about it to better the outcome. However, there needs to be a balance. Once I was railroaded in front a group when I thought a participant in the program was bored (one of those guys with a resting angry face). Turns out he was actually interested, just thinking about what I was saying, and I wasted a heck-of-a-lot of brainpower worrying about it.

2. With age (and power) comes freedom.  Who said growing older was a bad thing? What I found was that as women ‘matured’ in their careers, they worried less about how others saw them, and became more comfortable with “being themselves”, not towing the line, and speaking their minds.  Some said that if they could go back in time they would be less overly-concerned with what others thought, because in hindsight it was a losing battle anyway. For example:

“It’s certainly a confidence thing that comes from having been the boss, frankly.  It’s okay to be a bit of a dag and speak your mind.”

3. Human is good.  In my opinion, the more successful leaders (of course, depending on how you define success) balance a “healthy interest” in how supervisors, peers and employees identify them.  That is, they think vertically (e.g., boss, employees) and horizontally (e.g., peers), about what others really know about them. We all know the type of person who manages perceptions “upward”…the kind of jerk who makes sure the boss knows about all of his or her good accomplishments. Down with that type. I’m also not talking about people who concern themselves with ‘does everybody like me?’  I’m referring to those leaders who actually consider whether they’re coming across as a ‘whole person’ to those they work with. These are the people who actually tell you small snippets about their lives so you connect with them on more levels than just “did we make budget last month?” The ones that seem human. Human is good.

On that note, statistically speaking (from another part of my research), people who think that others see their “real self” tend to trust others more, and like working with others more. It’s worth considering whether you’ll let others on to the fact that you have an identity outside of work. Assuming you do, that is.


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