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Career and executive coaching tip - Do you behave the way you're expected to behave by others?

21 Oct 2013

In Charles Horton Cooley’s ‘looking glass self’ theory, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we’re in part influenced to view ourselves through others’ perceptions. What we think and how we behave is governed in part by the expectations of others to act out the roles they’ve assigned us. But while the ideal self is what we might deem a positive image that we aspire towards, the perceptions we believe others have of us can be negative and undermine our self image and self belief.

Take the playboy Bruce Wayne of Wayne Enterprises, as an example. He gets drunk, surrounds himself with nubile swimwear models, and drives fast cars as he believes the role of a billionaire bachelor should do. He hates himself for it but does it nonetheless. In our own social circles, we label people then applaud the ‘clown’ in the group when he gets drunk and fools around, or seek the advice of a ‘wise’ friend who responds with pearls of wisdom however good or bad.

We must identify the roles we play out for others, and decide for ourselves whether they play a useful purpose that builds our self-belief and are aligned with our authentic self.  And we should realise that the signs and messages people send back to you about your own behaviour is tainted by their own conscious and unconscious beliefs, prejudices, value systems and social etiquette, all of which stops people from showing what they really think of you. In other words, you can’t ever rely on others to show you who you really are because they too are looking through their own set of glasses. The only person you can trust to show you who you are is yourself. You must have the courage to take our own journey of self discovery, listen to what you find out about yourself then find the self confidence and personal responsibility to do what feels right. 

A famous experiment

A famous experiment in the 1960s by two American sociologists, Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, showed the true power of the self-fulfilling prophecy. They randomly chose 20% of primary school children from 18 classrooms and told the teachers they were 'intellectual bloomers.'  The teachers were told these children would show remarkable gains during the year. The teachers responded by encouraging these intellectual bloomers; their body language and facial expressions communicated they were special. The relationship changed between teacher and child, and the teachers started to find the bloomers more 'appealing, more affectionate and better adjusted'.  The acid-test were exam marks: the randomly chosen bloomers who'd been singled out, consciously and subconsciously, by teachers for special attention showed marked improvement in their results.        

Exercise: The roles you play

  1. What ‘roles’ do you think others assign to you at work? Are these positive or negative?
  2. How do you think others see you socially? Are these positive or negative
  3. How are you compounding the negative perceptions or ‘roles’ others have of you by behaving a certain way – by playing certain ‘roles’?
  4. What do you need to do to break free from these roles?
  5. What roles would give you most integrity and contentment?

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