Not everyone can come across as a lovable 'ole teddy bear. But, we do have the ability to change how people perceive us and focus on the most positive aspects. In a previous post I considered the social and professional value of attempting to “be the type of person you would like to meet.” This is about perception.
According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, “warmth and competence” are the two positive traits we most desire to see in our fellow humans. And they are not insignificant. She states these first impressions account for “80 percent of our overall evaluation of people.”
When we meet someone for the first time we are unconsciously asking, “Do I like this person or not?” We answer by making a snap judgment based on those two factors, the relative strength of which informs how we feel about that person.
The four basic responses are contempt, pity, envy, and admiration. Can you guess which first impression would be the most advantageous? Let’s look at two of them and see how they play out in the real world.
Cuddy explains “pity” best in a summary article of her research in Harvard Magazine:
“The warm/incompetent quadrant…evokes an ambivalent emotion: pity, which fuses compassion and sadness. People are more likely to help groups in this cluster, like the elderly, but also much more likely to ignore and neglect them, says Cuddy. Furthermore, the more strongly one subscribes to the warm/incompetent stereotype, the more likely one is to both help and ignore such people. “It depends on the situation,” she says. “If you’re at a backyard barbecue, you’re more likely to help the elderly person. In the office, you’ll probably neglect them.”
That is a fascinating observation which can have direct consequences in the workplace. Obviously, intentionally or unintentionally avoiding anyone in an environment where collaboration and communication is valued can have a negative impact on your work and others. Or, at the very least create unwanted anxiety in either party. But, with a little self-awareness and motivation, one can take positive action – the opposite of neglect – and improve your interactions with those marginalized parties. Recognize your feelings and behaviors and go out of your way to be more inclusive. Remember that birthday party in the 6th grade you weren’t invited to?
At the other end of the warmth and competence spectrum “…groups seen as cold/competent evoke envy…it involves both respect and resentment.”
Let’s look at the Star Trek universe, one of the best of all universes. Commander Data, the silver-skinned android on board the starship Enterprise has many times saved the crew from imminent disaster by completing complex tasks much more efficiently than his humanoid counterparts. Many times his companions expressed a desire to have his exceptional skill sets. And yet, in the earlier episodes, he was utterly unable to understand simple concepts such as friendship or loss which sometimes estranged him from members of the crew.
Seeing the value of emoting warmer connections, he eventually created an “emotion chip” that allowed him to achieve a much greater level of human empathy.
During a particularly harrowing adventure, Data turns the chip off so as not to be distracted by his new feelings. Play this 28 second clip to hear Captain Picard's response.
Unfortunately, not being made of gyroscopes and circuitry you and I do not have that luxury. At the same time, our empathy does allow us to recognize how we are perceived by others, to “change our minds” and our actions to demonstrate a greater warmth. This is something that can be taught. Inexperienced managers, brusk CEOs and emotionally detached presidential candidates – think Al Gore and Hillary Clinton – see the value of this and are often coached to show more compassion and humor.
If we are aware of how we come across we have the tools to change people’s perceptions. Next month we’ll dig into the factors surrounding “admiration” and “contempt.” No spoilers, but it will have something to do with mermaids and the most despised man in America!