How Can You Misunderstand Me? Let Me Count the Ways!

How Can You Misunderstand Me? Let Me Count the Ways!

A friend and colleague of mine was promoted to manager over the group she had been a long-time member of. But after the promotion, she continued to do the individual contributor work she’d been doing before, in addition to tackling her new management responsibilities. As manager, she had team members submit their work in progress, and then she re-did substantial parts of it for them. When she’d been a senior analyst on the team, this was the sort of thing she’d often done. Back then, team members sought her input. But now, as manager, her detailed attention to their work made them feel micromanaged and distrusted.

For a while, no one said anything, but resentment was building. Finally, a member of the team closed the manager’s office door one afternoon and told her the truth, that the team didn’t like her re-dos and felt she didn’t trust them to do good work, that she was nitpicking, and it was undermining team confidence and good will.

The manager explained that she’d felt her promotion to manager had left the team short-handed, as they hadn’t yet been able to hire a replacement. She thought that doing hands-on work would be helpful given how much there was to do, and she was surprised at their negative reaction. When she explained that to the complaining team member, he assured her the team was doing fine and, if they felt a backlog building, they’d ask for help.

Despite that frank conversation, things didn’t change much. The manager continued to review and re-do their work, often without explanation about why she was making changes.

What no one understood, and the manager was unable (or unwilling) to explain, was that she was afraid to delegate responsibility and, frankly, didn’t know how. She’d been promoted to manager but not properly prepared either to delegate or to coach team members about improving their work, leading to team members’ resentment, which grew as the weeks went on.

But the truth was that their manager was operating with good intentions — to help the team and to produce the highest quality work, for which she was now responsible.

This story is an example of several things — the downsides of micromanaging and the lack of preparation some new managers receive. But it’s also an example of how we misunderstand each other. We observe something, or we hear or read something, assume we know what it means, and we’re wrong. In this case, the new manager was assumed to have morphed into a malicious micromanager whom the employees came to resent, despite the fact that they’d known and liked her for years. They quickly came to believe that she thought less of them, and that’s why she hovered over their work  — because she didn’t trust them — when in fact she was (1) genuinely trying to be helpful and (2) unsure how to delegate.

How Transparent Are Our Intentions?

It didn’t occur to the manager in this story that her team suspected her motives because she, herself, knew her motives weren’t suspect. She did trust the team. She was just trying to help, and her uncertainty about how to delegate and work through others was no reflection on them. How could they think otherwise?

The psychological term for this is “transparency illusion,” the tendency we have to think others can read us, when in fact they can’t. It’s perfectly clear to us what we mean and why we’re doing what we’re doing, so why isn’t it obvious to everyone else?

Because others view things with a cognitive bias towards themselves, thinking What do someone’s words and actions say about me? Maybe they have nothing to do with me, but according to psychologists it’s normal to think they do and to interpret someone else’s intention in that light — often negatively, as it turns out.

The Negativity Bias

Normal brains have a “negativity bias,” Dr. Rick Hanson says in his book Hardwiring Happiness, and this bias causes us to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities on a regular basis. That’s our “default brain” which leads us to confirm these tendencies with whatever information is at hand. It’s why, for example, the team assumed the new manager didn’t trust them: they were overestimating her actions as a threat to their reputations, maybe even their futures — the negativity bias in action.

It’s why, for example, when we run into the boss at Starbucks and he walks by and says nothing, we worry about this ominous sign, thinking he’s purposefully ignoring us, rather than stopping to think he may be tired, distracted, or have a lot on his mind. Again, the negativity bias in action.

It’s why some of us read a concise email and think it borders on rude, or why, when a meeting leader interrupts us, we take it as an affront. There are probably reasons for the curt email or the interruption that have little or nothing to do with us, but the negativity bias tells us otherwise.

Always on the lookout for perceived threats (to reputation, status, opportunity), the negativity bias distorts our understanding.

Knowing Better

Just because this bias is where our brain goes by default doesn’t mean we can’t redirect it. As Dr. Hanson says, “we can do something about it” — and should. His book is, after all, Hardwiring Happiness, and the neural pathways to happiness aren’t paved with negativity.

So practically speaking, whenever we think we’re being slighted, overlooked or disrespected, we can remind ourselves that our normal (and unhelpful) negativity bias has shifted into gear, and we can shift instead into neutral. Take a step back. Take a breath. Remember how easy it is to negatively misunderstand someone’s intentions, and then try not to.

In her book No One Understands You — And What You Can Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson, makes the case that all actions are subject to interpretation, and that alone debunks the notion that you, or anyone, can be seen objectively. There is no such thing as “objectively.” We’re always interpreting. “The information other people get from you and about you, the words you speak and the behaviors you engage in, is always given meaning through interpretation,” she writes.

Always. Not just sometimes, but always. One assumption-upending way to think about this is that there is no such thing as an objective, correct, inarguable thing/person/situation, not if everything always derives meaning through interpretation. Everyone, every idea, every event, every situation is subjective. In No One Understands You, Halvorson cites study after study examining people’s perceptions of others, everyone from politicians and celebrities to their very own spouses. The results of these studies demonstrate repeatedly that there are no absolutes.

All of which is essential to improving our ability to understand others. So as you go forth into the rest of your day, pondering how you can better understand those with whom you work, live and play, keep in mind:

We aren’t transparent. Just because you know exactly what you mean doesn’t mean others will even come close.

The negativity bias is needlessly over-alerting us to threats.

Everything is subject to interpretation, depending on our mindset, perspective, background and more — a helpful recognition particularly when we find ourselves in disagreement with others.


Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.


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