All Articles Leadership Communication Your employees don't get you. Here's why

Your employees don’t get you. Here’s why

3 min read


On the television show “The Office,” Steve Carell played a hilariously bad boss, whose total incompetence did nothing to undermine his belief that in his employees’ eyes, he was “World’s Best Boss” mug-worthy. It’s funny when it happens on TV. It’s not funny when it happens to you.

I’m not actually suggesting that your team thinks you’re an idiot. I have no idea what they think of you, but I do know that you don’t know, either. One of the things we have learned from over 50 years of research on how human beings perceive one another is that most of the time, we assume other people see us the way we see ourselves. A second thing we’ve learned is that that is almost never true.

The reasons why can get a bit complicated, but to put it simply: You have access to lots of information about you (e.g., your thoughts, intentions, feelings, past history) that other people do not have. You know how you mean to come across — they can only guess. And they guess wrong. A lot.

The good news is that they are predictably wrong. For example, not looking at someone who is speaking to you is very predictably interpreted as a sign of coldness — that either you don’t care, or you don’t like the speaker. Of course, there are a million reasons why you might not be looking at someone who’s talking to you, but they will very reliably interpret that behavior in one way.

Knowing this gives you the ability to think about the signals you are telegraphing, to be sure that you are, in fact, coming across to your team the way you intend to. And since it’s pretty safe to assume that you want to come across as trustworthy — a prerequisite for any successful leader — here are a few behaviors that will send the right message.

1. The first essential ingredient to trust is warmth. Much of appearing warm has to do with your body language.

  • Make eye contact — especially when someone else is speaking!
  • Smile — the genuine kind that makes wrinkles around your eyes. Especially important when someone smiles at you.
  • Nod a bit at the end of other people’s sentences. This indicates understanding. (But don’t do it too much — that’s weird.)
  • Lean slightly forward, and have an open body posture (i.e, don’t curl up into a ball)

It also helps to actually listen when other people are speaking, ask questions, affirm what they are saying, and express empathy where appropriate.

2. The second ingredient to trust is competence. You need to seem like you can act on your intentions when you need to. Eye contact and open body postures will also help you here, as will standing up straight. (Your mom was right about that.) In addition, remember that tooting your own horn a lot does not actually convey competence — it makes people suspicious. Studies show that taking a more modest approach, and being willing to own up to your mistakes, conveys a quiet confidence that suggests genuine ability.

Heidi Grant Halvorson is the author of “No One Understands You and What To Do About It.” She is associate director of Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center and senior consultant at the NeuroLeadership Institute.

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