We are often uncertain, confused or even completely unaware of what we project. This lack of self-awareness can be career-limiting.

Share story

It’s not easy to understand how other people perceive us. We are often uncertain, confused or even completely unaware of what we project. This lack of self-awareness can be career-limiting.

Psychologists call it the transparency illusion — the belief that we’re all open books and that what we intend is what people see. Knowing that most of us don’t clearly project what we intend doesn’t stop us from confidently forming impressions based on the impact we feel. And in organizations, these impressions are often crowdsourced.

Tapping into this collective impression can give us valuable information about what’s working for us and where we may need to adjust our style. You may be told that your sales skills need sharpening, but not that people see you as self-interested. Which one has more of an impact on your career?

It only takes a couple well-worded questions to a few key people to determine how others perceive you. Keep in mind that there’s never a comfortable time to do this, and assume that now is the exact right time. Use this process as a guide:

— Select five people. Choose colleagues who see you repeatedly in relevant work situations: bosses, executives, direct reports, peers or even former colleagues. Influential co-workers who have their ears to the ground make great sources. If they know you in more than one aspect of your work or life, even better. While it’s important that you have trusted people in your group, make sure to choose people who will tell it to you straight.

— Ask these two simple questions designed to tap into the collective wisdom: What’s the general perception of me? What could I do differently that would have the greatest impact on my success?

— Manage your reaction. Resist the temptation to explain yourself, defend your actions, or reveal disappointment. Ask for details or examples if you need them. And end with a sincere thank you.

— When you’ve finished the interviews, look for themes and repetitive points. If the perceptions of you are in line with what you intend, great. If not, it’s time to change your behaviors and begin to shift perception.

Many times clients have come back to me after completing this exercise and said, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before? I can easily change that!”

Kristi Hedges is a senior leadership coach who specializes in executive communications.