As humans, we are predisposed to finding order out of otherwise random data. When we look at clouds or even a mountain ridge, we find shapes that are familiar to us. When we see data, we instinctively search for patterns to help make sense of what might appear to be random information. It might be our inherent need for understanding. Or maybe we are just programmed to compare things to stuff we already know. Whatever the underlying cause, it’s a powerful trait that virtually all of us share.
Understanding that people want to put information into buckets and draw conclusions, are there things that we can be doing to help manage our own image?
Walking a Vegas game floor
Maybe you have walked a gaming floor in Las Vegas, turning your head as you are assaulted by the lights and noise that accompany the gambling experience. While perusing the various games, have you ever spotted a roulette table and noticed that the last 6 spins have all come up black? The next spin is bound to be red!
Of course we all know that the likelihood of a red on the next spin is statistically the same, regardless of what the last 6 spins were. Part of the reason the House always wins is that we humans find it hard to ignore irrelevant information. And a big part of the reason is that we are programmed to find patterns where they might not exist. Every time you conclude that the next spin must be red, or that a particular player is due for a good game, or that a set of information implies some pattern that doesn’t really exist, you are merely succumbing to your hardwired instincts.
Applying pattern recognition to personal growth
Now imagine that it’s not you that is walking the game floor but rather your boss. And your boss isn’t seeing a roulette table with 6 blacks in a row. Instead, she sees the last 6 interactions she has had with anyone where your name was mentioned. If she is predisposed to finding patterns, what conclusions might she draw?
The point here is that people will naturally reach conclusions about performance even if there are none to be reached. If your boss has 6 really great interactions in a row in a short time span, regardless of whether you are crushing your deliverables or not, she will be biased towards thinking positively about you. Similarly, if those interactions are all negative, even if you are doing a fantastic job, you are likely to get a little extra scrutiny.
The question you ought to be asking yourself is simple: what patterns about me will people see if they survey their surroundings?
Both inclination and time
As you consider what people will conclude when they think about you, understand that there are two aspects that are really at play. First, it is important to know whether information tends to be favorably or unfavorably inclined. If data is skewed in either direction, it will lead to conclusions that lean that way. Second, clusters only appear when data appears in relatively close proximity. That is to say that data separated by a year is not as impactful as data separated by a few days.
When we manage our careers, we tend to remember with perfect clarity everything we have done over the entirety of the experience. We might head into performance review time knowing in painful detail everything we have accomplished since the previous February term. We can list out in excruciating detail all of the impactful things we have done.
And then the performance review comes in, and we are stacked up somewhere in the middle just above the guy who owns a Swingline stapler and once set his employer’s place of business on fire.
So what happened?
While you will remember all of the detail, consider that your boss has to remember the details for all of her employees (and all of their employees, if she is managing a multi-tiered organization). In the moment, it is not practical to recall with any real detail all of the things that any one individual did during the year. The best that she can do is remember the most recent several weeks. If you have a cluster of positive or negative data points in the time horizon that she remembers, she will tend to think of you that way.
Knowing that, you can actually help yourself out. You want to create a cluster of positive data points around the time frame that she is managing. Very pragmatically, this might mean that you want to pay extra special attention to things like delivery dates and customer service around the time that reviews are happening. You want to make sure you hit all your deadlines, and you want to make sure that people generally have a positive experience with you. If they share their experience during this evaluation window, you can better create the cluster you would like to create.
Not just for individuals
Of course, this is not just useful for individuals. When you think about how you perceive companies, it’s much the same way. If you have a cable provider, for instance, imagine you have an issue every 6 months. It might be annoying to have issues, but if those two issues are separated by only a week, you are more likely to call and cancel your service.
As you manage your company’s customer relationships, consider what type of experience your customers are having. Are they seeing clusters of positive or negative experiences? Even if they are generally happy, a cluster of negative experiences can swing opinion the wrong way very quickly. On the other hand, if you can create a set of positive experiences around the time that they need to renew, you can swing the emotional bar the other way.
The same basic premise exists externally. If you show one win, the information exists in isolation. If you create a cluster of wins, the data points are more powerful. This is precisely why people talk about marketplace momentum. And, by the way, when you can show external momentum, you can leverage that internally as well, creating virtuous cycles with your development teams.
The bottom line
It’s fairly self-evident that you need to have positive data points, but you need to understand that people will tend to view things in clusters. Once you know that, swaying perception (either positively or negatively) is an exercise in creating clusters. You should be examining the relationships that matter most in your career. If they were to base their opinions only on the observable data they have received over the last 6 weeks, what would they conclude? And are those conclusions consistent with your own view?
By the way, this is also why the frequency of advertisements towards the end of election season increases. It’s similar to stealing the round in boxing. If you can create a positive impact at the end, you can skew the results in a meaningful way.