Few things are as important at work as managing impressions. Yet while authenticity is celebrated and popular advice suggests bringing your whole self to work, the fact is that we all get hired, promoted, or fired based on what other people think of us. And what other people think of us is based on what they see, which in turn depends on what we do.
Unsurprisingly, scientific research shows that impression management is not just a critical predictor of career success, but is also the essence of emotional intelligence and social skills. Contrary to popular belief, the people who are deemed more likable, socially adjusted, and rewarding to deal with are rather good at hiding the unfiltered, uncensored, and uninhibited version of themselves. Instead of being themselves, successful people make an effort to adjust their behaviors to conform to the expectations of others, and they are so good at this that they often come across as authentic. Sure, people are interested in knowing your real you, but they would much rather deal with the best version of you, especially if you make it seem genuine.
If you are just starting a new job or role, it is crucial that you get others to see you in a positive way, displaying your bright side and keeping your negative tendencies in check. We like to say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the truth is that there is no second chance to make a good first impression. Research indicates that people make quick inferences of others’ intelligence and personality even after 30-second interactions, and that such inferences are more accurate than we may think.
With this in mind, here are three data-driven recommendations for winning people over when you begin a new job.
Pay special attention to your manager’s reputation
Unsurprisingly, research shows that newcomers are more likely to make a better impression at work when they learn to decode their manager’s patterns of interaction with others, in particular how they are perceived by other employees. This may sound overly tactical or Machiavellian, but it is simply a reflection of reality.
The vast majority of bosses assign higher performance ratings to their direct reports when they find them more rewarding to deal with. This also means punishing high-performers who refuse to suck up to them or play politics. This explains why there is generally a gap between individuals’ career success and their actual contribution to any organization. This is also the reason for the high prevalence of incompetent leaders. Whether they like to admit it or not, most people get rewarded for managing up rather than doing their job.
Your career success is largely proportionate to your ability to understand and predict your boss’s behavior, and no impression management tactic will work unless you first figure out how your boss sees the world, what they like and dislike, and how you can best adapt to them (rather than vice-versa).
The good news is that it’s easy to find out about your boss’s reputation. Speak to others, extract the gossip, and take any opportunity to carefully observe your boss at work.
Show as much empathy as possible
People will like you based on how similar you are and, in particular, whether your values align with theirs. But emotional intelligence (EQ) is probably one universal trait that is appreciated by everyone, in every culture, and across all organizations and industries.
While there are many models and tests of EQ, they all encapsulate one critical soft skill–empathy. The good news is that empathy can be learned. It primarily involves paying attention to others, to understand what they think and how they see the world. You can boost your empathy by getting into the habit of taking perspective and thinking about what others think and feel.
While this sounds quite obvious, we live in a world where the norm is to be self-absorbed, trapped in our own self-centered and egotistical ruminations. Discrimination, prejudice, stereotypes, and confirmation bias are all explained by the same fundamental psychological force. We need to feel good and think highly about ourselves, even if it means bringing other people down or distorting reality to the point of delusion.
There is an antidote to this: Act as though you care more about others than of yourself. Since others are also more interested in themselves than others, this will probably boost your likability, as Dale Carnegie rightly pointed out in How to Win Friends and Influence People–the first, last, and best self-help book you should probably read.
Whatever you do, be consistent
The problem with faking it is not faking per se, but when it stops. Research shows that people prefer to see us in a consistent way, so there’s a high social cost to behaving in erratic or unpredictable ways. In fact, if there is one definition of authenticity– at least in the sense that society praises it–it’s centered on the notion of consistency. We would rarely call someone authentic unless they displayed a high degree of consistency between what they say and what they do, and between what they do in different situations. Of course, it is preferable if your consistent behaviors are empathetic, considerate and prosocial, but if they aren’t, then people will be more likely to put up with them if they are used to them.
Managing your impressions is a fundamental ingredient of your career success, and it’s especially critical when you are starting a new role. If you learn to decode your manager’s reputation, be kind to others, and strive for consistency between what you say and do, your chances of being more popular than others will improve significantly.
Oh, and if you think you will miss displaying the unfiltered or uncensored, natural version of you, don’t worry. You can still do that with your close friends and family, for they have probably learned to love, or at least tolerate, who you really are deep down.