So, you’re invested in raising your visibility at work. You started an accomplishment tracker, you’re highlighting your impact to your manager each quarter, and you’re confident you’re well on your way to achieving rockstar status at your org.
While this could very well be the reality, responsible self-advocacy is mindful of this one other thing… there will almost always be a difference between your perception of yourself, and how others perceive you.
While misunderstandings are a fact of life, if the gap between your intentions and your reputation at your org grows too large, you might find yourself treading water instead of riding waves to advance your career.
What is the Perception Gap?
Ever get into an argument with a friend or colleague only to realize that you were saying essentially the same thing? Everyone sees the world through a different lens, and no matter how clear we might think we’re being, there is always a chance your point may be misconstrued.
While you can’t control how others process information, the best thing you can do to avoid a gap in perception is to:
Cover your point in more ways than one, and
Invest in knowing your audience.
In terms of self-advocacy, this means building your personal brand with your manager (holistically and strategically), and regularly checking in with higher-ups for feedback.
Doing this leg-work will minimize the risk of being blindsided by unappealing projects or lukewarm performance reviews (things that only hinder our career growth).
Is Your Personal Brand Just Lip-Service?
If you’re able to contextualize your point in multiple ways, the likelihood of someone connecting with it goes up. In this case, the “point” is your potential. But not just your skills-based potential or your potential to move up the standard corporate ladder… your potential to scale your own personal vision of success.
Your vehicle to that success is your personal brand, grounded in your strengths and your passions with the ultimate goal of bringing more of what you love into your workday. Whatever promotion or opportunity you’re looking for, it should be driven by these ideals.
To be sure your manager will understand your brand, first spend some time refining it (clarity loves brevity) and then work to embody it in as many ways as possible. Volunteer for projects that align with your interests (and say no to the ones that don’t, when possible), own your assets and claim credit where it is due… overall, always be mindful about how your actions reflect on your future.
If you save your self-advocacy speech for your performance review and your manager hasn’t seen you walking the talk in the twelve months in between, then your personal brand ceases to be authentic, and you won’t have much of a case for a promotion or raise.
Still, practicing mindfulness in the way you present yourself throughout the day is just a foundational step for effective self-advocacy. Without clear communication with your manager, there’s still plenty of room for misinterpretation — on both sides. So, it is critical to highlight your work and ask for feedback regularly.
Nobody knows exactly what you do each day, nor what you’re working toward, better than you. Just as well, no one’s opinion of your work (in terms of promotions, raises, etc.) matters as much as your manager’s. The safest way to bridge the perception gap is to simply walk right over it and into your manager’s calendar.
Do You Ask For Feedback Before It’s Required?
Gaps in perception often widen because of a hesitation to confront possible lapses in communication. The less you ask, the less you know, and the less opportunity you have to offer clarity. If you’re trying to self-advocate without seeking regular feedback, you may as well be playing roulette with your career.
We can’t stress this enough: connecting with your manager once per year at your performance review will never be enough time to develop an authentic image of your worth to the org, especially as it relates to your own personal goals.
We recommend scheduling time quarterly for a career discussion. Seriously, just reach out and ask for some time on your manager’s calendar. If it’s far enough in advance, she’ll likely be happy to meet (remember: her job is easier when she understands your career goals).
If you’ve been doing your homework and sending your accomplishments to your manager regularly, this discussion is your opportunity to answer any questions and ensure your manager understands the connection between your work and the impact on the business. It is also your chance to check in and confirm if your manager is actually digesting your quarterly report, and whether or not she understands what you are conveying.
Remember: while certain actions or phrases might not click for some people, others might speak volumes about what you’re interested in, how you thrive, and why that is an asset to the org. You’ll only know if the communication is working if you ask.
Frame the conversation in terms of what you’re already working on or excelling at; this way, your manager will be able to easily tell you if you’re hitting the mark in her eyes or not. Either way, at least you know, and you can work to improve with a sense of direction.
A generic lead (i.e., how am I doing?) will only return an equally vague (unhelpful) response.
But, if you begin the conversation as so…
“I’m very interested in [opportunity], so I’ve been working on [goals]. I’ve already shared with you a few strides I’ve made via email, but I’d love to hear if you have any feedback on what I could be doing to better improve my chances, or if you had other ideas about potential opportunities in the org.”
You’re opening up a constructive conversation that will ultimately:
Make your goals clear to your manager
Help her contextualize your accomplishments in terms of what you’re interested in
Provide her an opportunity to share specific advice and/or be open about how her perception of your progress might differ from yours
Feedback doesn’t always have to mean “You’re doing a great/bad job.” In fact, that sort of feedback still leaves room for a gaping perception gap.
Your manager might believe you’re doing a great job in terms of the path she sees for you, while that path may not actually align with your interests. However, if you approach feedback with crystal clear intention, you’re most likely to receive clarity in return. You might even find exciting opportunities you weren’t aware were within your reach, based on your manager’s unique perception of your worth. Whether those opportunities fit your interests can stay open for discussion, but at least you’re having the discussion.
Pro tip: building an open and honest relationship with your manager will also help you understand more of how she communicates and receives information. This way, when it does come time to make the big move and ask for a raise or that new project, you’ll know how best to phrase it based on your manager’s specific values and communication style.
Be bold, be humble, be specific.
Having the confidence to articulate to your manager what you want and why you deserve it is an essential self-advocacy skill, but having the humility to ask for her opinion on how you could work smarter to achieve your goals is what will ultimately drive your success.
Humans communicate best in face to face dialogue, and it’s up to you to keep the conversation active. Nobody knows there’s a perception gap until someone points it out, and your manager doesn’t have the time to read between the lines.
Get over the fear of rejection and embrace the freedom of transparency. The more you put yourself out there and communicate openly with your manager, the more you will both come to know one another on a level that feels comfortable, productive, and trusting. Hoping that your deliverables will speak loud and clear enough for your manager to hear leaves you at risk for missed opportunities.