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How to Change People’s Perception of You

Based on interview on HBR.

Sarah Green: Hi, I’m Sarah Green. Today I’m talking withHeidi Grant Halvorson, psychologist and author of the new book “No OneUnderstands You and What to Do About It.” Heidi, thank you so much forcoming in today.

Heidi Grant Halvorson: Thank you, Sarah.

Sarah Green: So one of the chapters in the book that Ithought we could just drill down on a little bit is about power, and how powerchanges how we see others and changes powerful people’s ability to see us. AndI thought I’d just start by asking, What is going on here? Why does power havethis effect?

Heidi Grant Halvorson: It’s interesting, because it actuallyturns out to be literally an effect on the brain. Power does a bunch of thingsto people when they are in any kind of situation where they have control overother people’s outcomes. It makes them more interested in taking risks. Itmakes them more optimistic. But it also actually kind of narrows their visionso that they become really only interested in their own goals and what it takesto achieve them. And a result of that narrowing is that they pay a lot lessattention to people who have less power than they do. What that means is thatthey’re happy to just get the gist of you, so to speak. They may usestereotypes a lot more, shortcuts, heuristics. They’re basically relying onsurface features and very simple details to get a sense of who you are, but notreally going very deeply past that. Which obviously, is a problem for those ofus who aren’t in power, because it makes it so that they’re not really seeingwho we are, and importantly, seeing all the potential we have and everythingthat we can bring to the table.

It’s an interesting thing because it can happen to anybodywho’s in a position of power. It’s not that there are certain kinds of peoplewho do this and other people don’t. It’s really if you’re in a position ofpower, your vision gets narrowed and you just don’t notice and attend to thepeople around you the way you normally would.

Sarah Green: So if you’re in that situation where you areslightly less powerful, how do you motivate the powerful person to really takea second look at you and see you more clearly?

Heidi Grant Halvorson: Well, there’s basically two ways toget people to take a look at you when they have a first impression that youwant to get them to revise. And I like to think of them as the”tortoise” method and the “hare” method. Because one takesa while and it’s slow, but it’s very reliable. The other one’s a little bitquicker.

So the tortoise method is really understanding that it’sgoing to take a lot of information-and a lot of really eye-catching,attention-getting information-over time to convince someone to change theiropinion of you. If you have come off as just a little bit cold in the past, andso you have a reputation for being aloof, just coming in and smiling a bit morefor a few days is not going to do it.

We’re very good, again unconsciously, at either ignoring ordiscounting information about somebody that doesn’t fit with our preconceivednotions of them. We have expressions like, “Even a blind pig finds anacorn sometimes.” We just say, “Oh, well, that was a fluke.” Or”Maybe you’re smiling because you’re trying to get me to do you afavor.” We come up with explanations that allow us to keep that impressionintact.

So if you want to change an impression, you really have tobe incredibly friendly every day for like two months before people will reallybelieve you are not the cold and aloof person that they originally thought youwere. So-attention-getting, lots of evidence over time, be patient. Eventually,there’ll be a tipping point, and their opinion of you will change.

The hare method is a little bit faster, but it requires youto be a little bit more creative. And it relies on the fact that when peoplehave what psychologists call “outcome interdependency,” which meansmy outcomes depend on you-in order to get what I want, I need you to dosomething. And usually, the easiest way to do that is by working together,let’s say, on a project.

When people have that outcome interdependency, againunconsciously, they become very interested in getting one another right, inreally having an accurate view of the other person, because it’s very useful tohave an accurate view when you need to work together. And so you’ll often findpeople saying, “Oh, I thought so-and-so was such a jerk. But then I workedwith him, and it turns out he’s a really nice guy.” Well, the reason thathappens is because when you started working with so-and-so, your brain becameopen to the possibility that your first impression was wrong. You startedreally taking a look, and you figured out what the person was actually like.

So if you can find ways-and I know that’s not always fun,because sometimes when someone has a bad impression of you, the last thing youwant to do is work with them-but if you can find ways to work together or findsome ways so that that person needs you for something, it’s likely to make themtake a second look. And then you have an opportunity to correct that firstimpression and come across as you authentically are and as you intended to.

Sarah Green: And so, Heidi, if you’re the manager in thissituation and you know that you’re maybe not seeing other people clearlythrough the fog of power, how do you-is it just enough to commit to being fair,I mean, to remind yourself to try to be more open-minded and fair? Does thatactually work?

Heidi Grant Halvorson: Simply committing to being more fairusually doesn’t work because it’s so vague that it doesn’t really tell you whatyou’re going to do differently. And so people often make commitments like that.I mean, the reality is we all have the goal of being fair about one another,and nobody wants to be biased. Nobody wants to really be looking at peoplesuperficially, but we end up doing it.

So you really need to make it more of a priority and reallyspell out what you’re going to do differently. So that I’m going to maybe setaside times each week for meetings of a certain length with each of the peoplethat work with me, and really ask them about themselves, and really listen. Soif you commit to actions like that, where you’re really going to be gettingthat information you need to have a complete picture, then absolutely, you canget past that bias in perception that power creates.

Sarah Green: Well, Heidi, thank you so much for coming intoday.

Heidi Grant Halvorson: Thank you very much.

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