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Managing Others’ Perceptions

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A group of scientists were given a number of rats to test on mazes. Scientists just love running rats through mazes. Anyway, half the rats were normal. They were told that the other half were “super rats bred to be much smarter than normal rodents. In another experiment, teachers were given a classroom of students. Half of the students were normal and half had an abnormally high IQ.

Businessman with Coat and Tie Holding Blank Business Card.

Neither of these experiments were designed to test students or rats. They had already been tested. All of the rats were just normal lab rats and all of the students were normal school children. There was no significant difference between the intelligence of the two groups of rats or between the two groups of students. The experiment was testing the scientists and teachers to see if their assumptions would impact test scores.

It turns out assumptions had a huge impact. The “super rats” performed better in the mazes than the normal rats. The brilliant students “did better” in their studies than the other students. There are two reasons for this. First, it shows that some of our testing is not as objective as we would like it to be. Second, it shows that as humans, we can often influence the outcome of measurements based on what we expect to happen. This could be something as simple as holding the “smart” students to a higher standard and giving them extra help in increasing their performance or it could be something as complex as kids and rats picking up on expectations and finding the right answers or best path through a maze because of subconscious signals from the teacher or scientists. (For more information read about the horse Clever Hans who could answer math questions.)

When it comes to your career, you need to make sure you put yourself in situations where people expect you to be brilliant. People will find what they are looking for, so if you put yourself in a situation where people don’t expect much from you, it will influence your performance and their perception of your performance.

Often the easiest way to appear smart is to stop doing things that make you look less intelligent. Here are some ideas to consider:

1. Watch your language. Words like “yeah”, “nah”, curse words, etc. can make you appear less intelligent.

2. Think more, speak less. I had a friend in high school whom everyone assumed was very smart. He struggled in college. Looking back, I realized that he seemed extremely smart because he didn’t speak as much as the rest of us. When he did speak, he thought about what he said much more than we did.

3. What outside activities do you discuss? People form an opinion of what you do with your free time based on what you talk about at work. If the only thing you discuss is the latest reality TV shows, you’ll encourage people to form a very different opinion about you than if you talk about scientific research, astronomy, the opera, books, and other similar topics.

Obviously none of these suggestions can make up for being an idiot and should never become a replacement for developing actual skill and gaining knowledge. Still, it is important to recognize that success requires more than just raw talent. Actively managing others’ perceptions of you is an important part of intentional success.

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