It’s hard to know what other people think of you. Your own feelings of self-confidence and self-efficacy (your belief about how well you are able to influence the world) are likely to determine how you think other people view you.
That can be a problem if you want to succeed in the workplace. An honest perception of your strengths and weaknesses is critical. The good news is that there are things that you can do to get a clearer sense of what your peers truly think.
Why people aren’t honest
It’s critical to first understand why you might not have an accurate picture of how people see you. For starters, most people aren’t very confrontational. They try to avoid negative interactions. As a result, they don’t point out things you do that bother them. They may talk about them behind your back to others or stew about them in private, but they will probably not come out and tell you.
There are several reasons for this reluctance to be critical. First, many people are high in the personality characteristic of agreeableness. This trait (which is one of the Big Five personality characteristics) reflects how much you want to be liked by others. The more agreeable you are, the less likely you are to criticize others, because you believe that they will not like you if you express your concerns.
Second, many cultures promote civility as a virtue. This bleeds into the workplace by making it difficult to give explicit critiques to others. As a result, your workplace culture is probably making it harder for people to tell you what they really think of you.
Finally, the higher you rise in an organization, the less likely you are to get an accurate picture of how other people view you. Most people want to be viewed favorably by others in a position of power. Once you move up to a supervisory role (or even higher), it is difficult to get people to give you a straight answer about their concerns.
How to get genuine feedback
If you are unaware of the factors that influence whether people like you, it will be difficult to change your behavior to get along better with your colleagues. There are several things you can do to get better calibrated.
Start by asking for honest feedback directly. Tell them that you are trying to improve your relationships with people in the workplace, and that you need an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. While people may be unwilling to volunteer their sense of your limitations, if they perceive that you are trying to make changes, they may be more prone to make suggestions.
When you do ask for feedback, you have to accept it gracefully. It is not easy to get criticized (even when you ask for it), and so you have to overcome an initial tendency to get defensive. Instead, you have to smile and thank people for their honest assessment. In private, you can allow yourself to feel bad about criticism for a while, but in public, you need to demonstrate that you really want to know what you can do to improve.
When you get critiques, you have to work to improve, so that your colleagues see that you are putting in a good-faith effort to get better. Enroll in a class if there are particular skills (like having difficult conversations or delegating tasks) that you need to develop. Ask for advice, or find someone who is good at the ability you need to shore up and get some mentoring. The best way to ensure that people continue to give you honest feedback is to demonstrate that you are responsive to the comments they make.
If you are in a position of authority, set up a 360 review for yourself. Give people the chance to give you feedback directly and encourage them to do so. But also give them a chance to provide an anonymous assessment. If you get more negative feedback from the anonymous assessment than you do from the direct questions, that suggests that people have concerns about being honest with you or with management in general. That is something you will have to better understand.
Finally, while you want to seek out criticism, you also want to help to develop a workplace culture in which people express what they appreciate about others as well as what they are concerned about. Research on romantic relationships suggests that people need to hear more positive comments than negative ones to maintain a healthy relationship. The same thing holds true at work. You can work to develop a habit of giving people honest feedback about their weaknesses, but don’t forget to find ways to thank people for their efforts and to compliment them for their strengths.