Fooled from the start? First impressions and masters of workplace manipulation

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Do we fall for self-promoting masters of workplace manipulation from the get go, maybe even at the interview stages when they wow people in the room?

Business Insider‘s Jenna Goudreau has been writing about social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s (Harvard) new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. I found especially interesting her recent piece on the two questions that people quickly answer when they first meet someone, per Dr. Cuddy:

In her new book, “Presence,” Cuddy says people quickly answer two questions when they first meet you:

Can I trust this person?
Can I respect this person?

Psychologists refer to these dimensions as warmth and competence respectively, and ideally you want to be perceived as having both.

In another piece on Cuddy and Presence, Goudreau discusses how there’s no single non-verbal cue that tells us that someone is a liar. Rather, according to Cuddy, “instead of looking for one big ‘reveal,’ the best way to spot deception is to look for discrepancies across multiple channels of communication, including facial expressions, posture, and speech,” especially “leaks” that show “differences between what people are saying and what they are doing.”

Ah, but here’s the rub as I see it. The “leaks” often don’t reveal themselves at first, at least when we’re dealing with masters of manipulation. Whether they are simply smooth operators or lean in the direction of clinically diagnosable conditions such as narcissism or sociopathy, they are very, very practiced at making positive first impressions. It’s often not until later when you discover that they’re worthy of neither trust nor respect.

Presence is being touted as a coaching manual of sorts for folks who want to get ahead, and that’s perfectly understandable. After all, only the rare (and very odd) person doesn’t want to make a good first impression. But Dr. Cuddy’s research findings also help to illuminate how smart, manipulative, possibly toxic people present so well in interviews and continue to make strong first impressions after they show up. They immediately begin to position themselves and build street cred.

Again, we all want to get off to a good start in a new job. In no way am I suggesting that coming in with a winning attitude is a bad thing! But the master manipulators are often less than meets the eye and more about feathering their own nest. The nasty ones will find ways to roll over others in their way, often in a stealthy manner. It’s not surprising that when bullying-type behaviors are involved, they are often of the covert, behind-the-back variety.

The folks who see through this veneer may find it impossible to effectively sound the alarm, because it’s already too late. If you’re putting down a shining new star, it must be because you’re resentful, right? 

How many times are these scheming newcomers given the keys to the kingdom, practically before they’ve finishing picking their 401(k) and health plan options? Based on my admittedly anecdotal assessments, the manipulators seldom pay a big price for their self-interested maneuvering. Many times they depart before it catches up with them, moving up the ladder as others continue to fall for their game. Sigh.

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Related post

The Let-Me-Impress-You Club (2011) — “This exemplifies a challenge facing many members of the Let-Me-Impress-You Club. They have learned how to wow people in a room with their personalities and accomplishments, but they haven’t quite figured out how to lead when the going gets tough and they are no longer cheered by admirers.”

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2 responses

  1. This article is as insightful as they get. Thank you! It amazes me, too, how many of the master manipulators orchestrate others in order to get recognition and attention (via awards) within their professions. This doesn’t take away from those professionals who do deserve the accolades they earn, but we all know those folks who are very good at making their lights shine – artificially.

  2. Perhaps we need to worry less about the image we project and more about the character we reveal. If we were less inclined to project confidence and more inclined to develop competence, we would welcome opportunities to have second thoughts! First impressions matter more when we don’t examine the accuracy of our assessments over time.

    There’s a reason confidence games are called confidence games. I’m more interested in competence gains.

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