MCLEOD: Why we're usually wrong about other people

A client of mine recently told me, “All my boss cares about is money.” Yet I was in a private meeting with his boss, the CEO, just the day before, and when I asked him (the CEO) to identify his top three priorities, they were, in order:

1) Creating a great place to work

2) Providing our customers with outstanding service

3) Hitting our profit number.

The three objectives inextricably linked. Yet when asked to rank them, the boss very intentionally placed employees and customers above money.

So why did his employee think otherwise?

He was probably doing what we all sometimes do: connecting the dots using our own assumptions.

Here are three reasons why people make inaccurate assessments about others:

1) Allowing mass marketing to define the backstory

In a recent Askmen.com survey men were asked, “What is the ultimate male status symbol?” Only 4 percent said a beautiful car and 13 percent said a beautiful wife or girlfriend. When men were asked about the ultimate male status symbol, the No. 1 answer, from 44 percent of men, was, drum roll please … a family.

The marketing machine would have you believe because men appreciate nice-looking cars and women, that’s the only thing they care about. But in reality what (most) men really want is a happy family. In the same survey 57 percent of men said that “being a great husband who looks after his family” tops the list of accomplishments that defines them as a real man.

The cultural narrative that says men are superficial, bosses are evil, rich people are spoiled and women are materialistic causes us to fill in a backstory that is often inaccurate. When you let the marketing machine define people, you’re likely to miss their more noble aspirations.

2) Attaching undue significance to isolated comments

Years ago, I was helping out in my daughter’s kindergarten class. The teacher asked the kids, “What is your mother’s favorite thing to do?” A full half of the class said, “My mom’s favorite things to do are sleep and clean.”

I about fell out of my chair. Who were these mothers? June Cleaver with a lazy streak?

Then I realized, the majority of the kindergartners had younger siblings, many had small babies in their house.

The kids had no doubt heard their mothers lamenting about their lack of sleep or need to clean. They assumed my mother must LOVE to sleep and clean, because that’s all she ever talks about.

My client may have assumed that the CEO only cared about money, because he heard the CEO stress about it. But just because someone talks about something with “vigor” doesn’t mean that it’s their highest priority. It may just mean that at that moment, they’re stressed about it.

3) Assuming that people are static

My younger brother and I were discussing strategy for his contracting business. I assumed, as older sisters are often wont to do, that my baby brother was in need of my expert advice. How could a guy who once chipped his tooth trying to open a beer bottle create a good business plan?

Probably because in the 25 years since he cracked his tooth, he’s been an Army Ranger, a business school grad, a stockbroker, and a successful contractor.

You’re not the person you were 25 or even two years ago. Neither is anyone else. Don’t let assumptions about who a person once was inform the way you interact with them today.

Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of several book,s including “Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud.”