“The illusion of transparency is a tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which their personal mental state is known by others.”
Research says that people are better at hiding their internal state than they give it credit for. People tend to overestimate the extent to which their thoughts and emotions leak out and are visible to others. The illusion of transparency is the belief that others can “see right through them” more than is really the case.
In a workspace, the reverse of this phenomenon is also a common occurrence – when people believe that their counterparts see them like open books; implying that the former believes that the latter sees them as the former intends them to see as. Let’s call this reverse transparency illusion. Now the intent of the subject can be as simple as being pensive, but it can be interpreted as disinterest by the observers. Facial expressions, body language, eye contact and head movement – can all showcase the opposite of what is intended, and also be interpreted very differently by different people. Emotions, at times, are difficult to interpret. Misinterpreted emotions lead to incorrect perceptions of an individual. Perceptions create common narratives (such as Joey doesn’t pay attention in meetings; Harmeet is rude). And perceptions, no matter how robust the organization’s feedback or performance system is, often play a career-defining role.
The giver’s feedback may change if you do not manage your reaction to the feedback well
Kristi Hedges, the author of The Power of Presence articulates a 4-step exercise to determine how you are perceived by others.
Step 1: Select five people
The first step is to nit-pick people with whom you have engaged repeatedly in work environments. The objective is to collect feedback from them and understand how you are perceived. Ensure that the people you select fit the following criteria:
- Select those with whom you engage regularly for work, such as your current or former bosses, executives, peers, or direct reports.
- Prefer people who know you in more than one aspect of your work or life
- Ensure you choose the people who are straightforward and don’t shy away from giving honest feedback (even if it is harsh)
- Have trusted people in your group of five
Step 2: Request a face-face meeting
Take feedback in a face-face meeting, and request for people’s time for it. Here are the things you should keep in mind before requesting for a meeting:
- Promise them confidentiality and keep that promise. This encourages the providers of feedback to be honest
- Tell them that you are taking feedback from a group of people, and you are doing it to find themes. This is to reduce the burden on them.
- Prefer to request for a meeting in person. The likelihood of someone agreeing to a meeting when asked in person is more. If you are remotely located, then request on the phone. If that doesn’t work (the feedback provider is unavailable), use email, but ask them if they have any questions prior to the discussion, and answer them all.
Step 3: Ask two questions
Kristi Hedges recommends asking two simple questions in the meeting. According to her, “they are designed to tap into the collective wisdom.” The questions go as follows:
- What’s the general perception of me?
- What could I do differently that would have the greatest impact on my success?
The responses do not follow a set pattern, given the open-ended nature of the questions. According to Hedges, one may hear both eye-opening and helpful responses, and vague and confusing responses; it entirely depends on the person who is answering the questions.
In case the person is uncomfortable answering the above questions, take a climb-the-ladder approach. Take a very project-specific feedback and then go a level up. Follow up the project-feedback question with “May I go up a level now and ask about the general perception of me as a leader/colleague/person?”
Step 4: Manage your reaction
Your demeanor in the feedback process is essential in ensuring you receive an honest one. The giver’s feedback may change if you do not manage your reaction well – she may sugarcoat it, if she sees you getting upset; get agitated and bogged down by recency bias if you are perceived as disrespectful of her opinion; or may stop altogether and give you the feedback in shorthand if she perceives you as disinterested.
Keep these things in mind when receiving feedback:
- Resist the temptation to explain yourself, defend your actions, or reveal disappointment.
- Be comfortable when receiving feedback. “The quality of your feedback will only be as good as your ability to remain comfortable while receiving it.”
- Ask for examples wherever you need.
- End with a sincere thank you.
Do a content analysis of the feedback received and documented. Look for larger themes by clustering repetitive points which surfaced in your interviews with the feedback givers. In case you come across outliers, you can exclude them as long as they do not contain vital information. Once you have clustered the pointers into behavioral traits, compare that perception with how you intend to be perceived. If the intended and the actual is similar, then you are doing good; if there are foreseeable gaps in the intended and the actual, then you know what are the traits being read incorrectly, and you can work on them accordingly.
In Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator falls prey to the illusion of transparency. He ends up admitting his crime under the false belief that some police officers can sense his guilt. To avoid a reverse Poe (where you haven't committed the crime but the police officers believe you have) at work, you can follow this exercise and course correct while there is time!