How to fast track the right impression with a simple mind trick

How to fast track the right impression with a simple mind trick

Our reputation is important. People use it as a guide to short cut their thinking about who we are, what we are capable of and how they will interact with us. These reputations are not always accurate, but they are always there, for better or worse.   

I often work with clients who need to change the way certain people see them. Whether it’s to be seen as capable enough to get a promotion, strong enough to lead a large team or innovative enough to be on a special project, the number one hurdle for these clients is not necessarily their actual capability, but the perception of their capability.  

Tina wanted to make partner in her consulting firm. She was told she was great at her role but needed to demonstrate ‘stronger leadership skills’ before she would be considered for the partner track. Tina knew that she was ready to be partner and saw her challenge as one of shifting perceptions rather than building new skills. She engaged me to help her change the way people saw her, in order to improve her chances of becoming partner. So we set to work. 

When trying to influence someone to see us in a certain way, we need to first understand how they think of us now, and then what we need to refocus their attention on in order to create the right impression. When left to their own devices, the people around us make judgments about us that are not always accurate and not always helpful. Changing people’s perceptions of us can be tricky. If people tell you to work on a skill, and you already know you have it (side note: it’s worth checking in with some trusted colleagues, just to be sure), then the real work is in changing their view of you. 

Priming the mind for a perception change 

What’s needed here is a technique I call ‘Priming for perception.’ Priming for perception is about enticing the mind of the other person to pay attention to what you know already exists. It’s about redirecting their attention and guiding their thinking from amidst a swirling soup of possibilities, to make it easier for them to truly see and appreciate what they have not seen of you to date. Much like the way priming a canvas helps the paint stick, priming for perception helps an idea stick by telling the mind what to pay attention to.   

The research 

In 1996, Bargh et al published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which showed that people can be primed to change their behaviour just by being exposed to certain words and ideas. They found that people who were primed for ‘rudeness’ interrupted others more often, and more quickly, and those that were primed with the idea of ‘being old’, walked more slowing down the corridor when leaving the experiment.  

We are priming others, and being primed ourselves, all the time. When we say nice things about others, we are priming people to approach that person with a warm feeling. When we talk others down, we are priming people for a negative experience with them. We also do it to ourselves by priming people to notice us in certain ways. For example, if you focus on your weakness, you are priming others to pay attention to them (‘I’m not a maths person’, ‘I’m not great at networking’) and over time, your words eventually become other people’s thoughts. We become responsible for guiding the impressions people form of us over time.   

Here’s a quick test of priming in action 

What do you think this word could be? Are you hungry to find out? 

S O _ P 

What about this word? Is your mind showering you with ideas yet? 

S O _ P 

I’m curious to know how many of you answered soup to the first question and soap to the second. How many of you noticed the priming in the questions preceding the words shown?  

(Note: I’m interested in your two responses so feel free to make a comment and let me know.) 

So how do we prime for perception at work? 

Tina did her homework. She casually enquired about what great leadership skills looked like on a day-to-day basis, and how people would know she was demonstrating these qualities. Once she had determined the actual behaviours that would create the impression of ‘strong leadership’, she set out to ensure she could orchestrate moments to showcase these skills. ‘Leading the people strategy’ was one of the examples that came out of her discussions, so every time she was in front of anyone on the partnership committee, she ensured that she spoke about what she was doing, and how it impacted the ‘people strategy’ of the department. She used the words ‘people’, ‘team’, ‘staff’ strategy’ in her conversations, and mentioned how important it was to always consider the people when making big decisions. The perception of her ‘leadership ability’ cemented. She received great feedback and was put on the partnership track. Only she and I knew that she hadn’t changed her actual behaviour as much as she had drawn attention to the right behaviours. The leaders were primed for perception – Tina could do the job – it was a win/win for all. 

Over to you 

If you don’t lead people’s thinking, they will make up their own mind about you. And the quickest way to lead their thinking is to leave a trail of attention clues that help them know what to pay attention to. Whether it’s repeating certain words to leave the impression the ideas are important to you (“It’s all about the customer you know.” “Customer is everything to me.” “We are nothing without the customer.”), to demonstrating certain skills in the company of the right people (like speaking up with confident ideas in front of the boss to reinforce that you have them), we can fast track the right impression, when we know how to prime for perception.  

Coaching questions 

  • What impression do you need to make? 

  • Who needs to think what about you? 

  • What do they think of you now? 

  • What opportunities can you create to prime for perception? 

  • Who else can you bring in to support your priming efforts? 

'Til next time.

Warm regards,