How others see you could matter more than how you see yourself

I recently published an article on ways to stop worrying about what other people think of you — the premise being that the constant fear of other people’s judgment is an obstacle to happiness.

You do you, I told readers, and critics be damned.

So I was somewhat taken aback while reading through Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter’s 2007 book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” in which the authors assert that it generally matters less what you think of yourself and more what other people think of you.

Now though, I see how Goldsmith’s perspective jibes with my own.

An executive coach who’s worked with more than 150 CEOs, Goldsmith writes mainly for leaders looking to nix the bad habits that will keep them from climbing the corporate ladder. He suggests that other people’s evaluations of you should largely — if not completely — determine the behaviour changes you make.

In the book, Goldsmith writes about the importance of unsolicited feedback, or what he calls the “blindside event,” in which someone surprises us with information about us that we didn’t know. It can be painful, Goldsmith admits, but it’s almost always helpful.

Here’s Goldsmith:

“If we can stop, listen, and think about what others are seeing in us, we have a great opportunity. We can compare the self that we want to be with the self that we are presenting to the rest of the world. We can then begin to make the real changes that are needed to close the gap between our stated values and our actual behaviour.”

As it turns out, there’s a growing body of research on the discrepancy between what we know about ourselves and what other people know about us.

One 2010 study, for example, found that people are generally better judges of their own self-esteem and anxiety, largely because other people don’t have access to their thoughts and feelings. But others can sometimes be more accurate judges of creativity and intelligence, possibly because most people try to protect their own egos when they answer questions about their cognitive ability.

What’s more, research suggests that we mistakenly assume other people see us the same way we see ourselves. It’s like a generalized version of hearing a recording of your voice: That’s what I sound like to the rest of the world?

Even when we’re aware of the fact that other people see us negatively, we can be resistant to change. In the book, Goldsmith provides an example of a leader he worked with who was known for being stingy with praise. After working with the leader for a while, Goldsmith deduced that the leader was simply clinging to an abstract idea of his “self,” one who was harsh and often brusque.

At some point the leader realised that he could let go of this specific self-image. He started doling out positive feedback more often and his reputation among his staff improved.

Boss critiqueSebastiaan ter Burg/FlickrUnsolicited feedback can be painful.

Here’s Goldsmith:

“The less he focused on himself and the more he considered what his staff were feeling, the more it benefited him. His reputation as a manager soared. His career did too.

“It’s an interesting equation: Less me. More them. Equals success.

“Keep this in mind when you find yourself resisting change because you’re clinging to a false — or pointless — notion of ‘me.’ It’s not about you. It’s about what other people think of you.”

The takeaway here seems to be that, if you want to know whether you’re living in accordance with your personal values, your own memories might not be the best source to mine. Instead it’s worth asking other people who know you well specific questions about the behaviours you hope to display.

In other words, your own assessment of your behaviour is meaningful — but the only way to make that assessment might be to draw on other people’s perceptions of you.

That’s especially true for leaders whose most important task is making other people’s careers easier. If your goal is to help others, then their experiences should definitely influence how you behave toward them. It sounds obvious, but as in the case of Goldsmith’s client, it’s often hard to internalize.

So go ahead and do you and damn those critics who are negative because they’re jealous or insecure or plain mean. But as for those who are genuinely trying to help you, know that there’s wisdom in their feedback, and you’d be foolish to ignore it.

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