Ever been in a situation where, despite your efforts, a baby ends up howling hysterically when you speak and coo to it?  Awkward right?  Watch .13 seconds of real world awkwardness below:

Every relationship has a beginning. Strangers become co-workers, friends and spouses by having a conversation, and then another, and then another. While conversation may be our most powerful tool for building relationships, it doesn’t work perfectly. Despite the fact that we will have many conversations over the course of our lives, initial conversations are often a source of anxiety, as we wonder and worry about the impressions we have on others.

Forming accurate perceptions would be a whole lot easier if we provided each other unambiguous feedback, but the current norms of conversation often prevent this from happening. I hope to be a catalyst to help change this by providing training for Courageous Conversations.

People often hide their true feelings in conversations out of politeness ;“I just don’t have the heart to tell this guy his story is boring”,  self-protection; “this story is really interesting, but if I say so, I might come off as desperate” or the simple hope that the current conversation will continue smoothly “maybe this story will get better if I let him keep talking”.

People may not merely obfuscate their feelings in conversations but actively misrepresent them in attempts to ingratiate or even to manipulate their conversational partners. As a result people’s post-conversation thoughts are often marked by uncertainty, be disproportionally self-focused and negative; “Did she think I was boring?” “Did I talk too much?” “Was that joke off-colour?” This uncertainty opens up the possibility that people will make systematic mistakes when trying to imagine what others think of them, invoking the liking gap as people become overly focused on negative self-directed thoughts following conversations.

Our impressions of others form rapidly and once formed, these impressions endure. Within seconds of striking up a conversation, we’ve already gleaned from the faces of our conversation partners their kindness and competence which in turn, can affect everything from attributions of legal responsibility to snap judgements. Similarly we extract a wealth of information from our conversation partner’s voice. For example, we deduce a person’s social class from their pronunciation, their personality from their use of emotional words and their social status from prosodic features of speech . Give people even more time to talk, and we’ll size up our conversation partners on important social dimensions, like how much they self-disclose and gossip. This, along with unconscious affiliative behaviours such as the tendency to mirror each other, is what determines whether conversation partners “click” and establish a rapport. In short, by the end of the first conversation, we’ve have already formed rich impressions of one another.

First impressions are not fleeting; rather, they set the tone for the rest of the relationship. 

Given how quickly people form impressions that shape their future interactions, it’s no surprise that early conversations have important implications for organisations and people’s work lives. Early positive interactions with co workers and supervisors predict subsequent job performance. In salary negotiations, the interpersonal aspects of the interaction, e.g., how much the new hire felt the negotiation “built a good foundation for a future relationship” predicts job satisfaction a year later, while the purely economic aspects, e.g., how much additional compensation was extracted in the negotiation do not. The expectations formed in early interactions not only predict later performance but cause it as well, as employees behave in line with the assumptions managers make about them.

Impressions form rapidly in early conversations and set expectations that shape people’s future interactions.

Does this person like me? Importantly, this question and associated perceptions are not a one-way street: people also get information about how others feel about them.  Both judgements are important, but they are fundamentally different. Whereas perceptions of others feels effortless, knowable, and certain, perceptions about whether they like you are more effortful, unknowable, and less certain. It’s easy to judge whether you find someone boring; the answer seems to come to you instantly. Your answer is also indisputable, as your subjective experience is the final say on the matter. In contrast, how do you know if someone else finds you boring? Suddenly you must do some interpersonal sleuthing: are they yawning as you talk? Breaking eye contact? Trying to change the subject? What if they are trying to leave not because they find you boring, but because they have to run to a meeting? This perceptual detective work is both cognitively taxing and susceptible to bias and is known as the ‘liking gap’.

Groups and Teams
I’m not sure our relationship is close enough for me to ask for advice”

I don’t want to put in extra hours if my team doesn’t value me”

Think about a group that you work with. This should be a group that:
(1) Often completes projects or tasks together.
(2) Has frequent contact.
(3) Has 3–5 people in it total (including you).

Answer the following questions

  1. How comfortable do you feel giving a teammate open and honest feedback? (not comfortable or very comfortable)
  2. How comfortable do you feel asking a teammate for help?  (not comfortable or very comfortable)
  3. How much do you feel like team members value the work that you do?” (not very much or very much)
  4. Given the option, how interested would you be in working on another project with your current team? (Not very interested or very interested)
  5. How well do you feel like your group works together? (not very well or very well)
  6. To what extent do you feel included in your group? (not very included or very included). 
  7. How satisfied are you with your job overall? ( not very satisfied or very satisfied)

Research by Harvard University Department of Psychology, The Wharton School and BetterUp, Inc.,found that the ‘liking gap’ predicts important workplace outcomes. When people feel that their teammates perceive them less positively, they are less likely to ask for help, less willing to communicate openly and honestly, and felt less included on their team. Moreover, negative perceptions were also related to decreased team effectiveness and decreased job satisfaction.

The researchers determined that the ‘liking gap’ is present no matter how long participants have known their teammates and that it persists over time, resulting in negative consequences for how group members relate to each other, work together and feel about their jobs.

The study suggested that the ‘liking gap’ is largest for peer relationships and that it is determined in part by the extent to which people focus on negative aspects of the impressions they make on others. This suggests people’s relative organisational status might be an important moderator of the liking gap.

Moreover, the extent to which people recall more negative thoughts about themselves compared to their thoughts about others correlates with the magnitude of the liking gap. For instance, when thinking about how much they liked their co worker, one participant wrote, “A very straightforward guy with no false pretense.” However, when writing about how much the same person liked them in turn, they wrote, “I think he thinks I can be annoying because I am way too concerned about performing well and accurately.”

The research outcomes evidenced that people perceive a larger liking gap when they spontaneously call to mind more positive impressions their teammates made on them in social interactions (“Joe’s such a mensch—he always refills the watercooler”), but meanwhile call to mind more negative impressions they perceive they leave on their teammates in a workplace setting (“Last Friday, Alice seemed bored during my presentation”).

Furthermore the study indicated that the liking gap may arise because people focus on negative thoughts when thinking about how much others like them (“I got a promotion recently, so she might feel jealous”) more than they do when thinking about how much they like somebody else (“She got a promotion recently, and I feel happy for her”).  This in turn leads to the individual perceiving the ‘liking gap’ as less likely to invite a colleague to lunch, feel hesitant to strike up a conversation in the elevator or assume their co worker doesn’t want to work on another project with them. In turn, their co worker/s may interpret these avoidant behaviours as evidence that they aren’t much liked by their co worker either, thereby perpetuating a self-fulfilling cycle of disengagement.

Group conversations and team interactions often leave people feeling uncertain about where they stand with others, but the research suggests that people are liked more than they know. While reciprocal liking may be present in initial conversations, people don’t always know it. This may stymie group formation, as groups often don’t recover after starting off on the wrong foot.  I wrote more about this in an earlier blog “Why didn’t you just ask? Are you underestimating your own influence?”

If only people knew how positively their teammates actually felt about them, they might communicate better, feel more included on their teams, and be happier overall with their jobs.

When on boarding new recruits, provide training for Courageous Conversations to set a tone and skillset of openness and trust. These structured conversations help defuse misperceptions that underlie the liking gap.

Learn to leave your conversations patting yourself on the back for your bon mots, not kicking yourselves for your faux pas.
Recognise that one’s perceptions of fairness or sense of control may simply reflect the realities of an organisation whilst the ‘liking gap’ is a misperception and therefore easier to change through open and transparent dialogue.

Managers seeking to create cohesive, effective teams should think critically not only about how teammates feel about each other, but also how each teammate thinks their teammates feel about each other.

The most egregious self-criticism that drives the liking gap early on cannot stand up to the weight of evidence of mutual liking.  This dimension is unique in that an individual can’t assess their own warmth objectively. How does someone know if they’re nice or not?   Perhaps this uncertainty about what others think is precisely where self-doubt and negative automatic thinking can creep in; needing to make an assumption invites assuming the worst. We address Negative Automatic thinking, characteristic of all human beings, in our Courageous Conversation modules, to avoid them becoming dysfunctional rather than helpful.

2020 has been a challenging year – this festive season remind someone how much you like them!

With my joyous wishes to you and yours!