Our Man in Panama

I’ve just finished a week of working in Panama.  We’ve been running career development workshops for an international charity. It’s a fascinating country, whose recent history is dominated by the canal.  It’s a visionary project, still a vital lifeline for trade, operating 24 hours a day. The city is the headquarters for many charities.

I’d set off with a few pre-conceptions about what the people would be like.  They came from across South America, a continent I’ve never visited. I suspect that subconsciously, I was looking for proof to reinforce my stereotypes. I began to think about how often we do this, at many times in our life.


It reminded me of a time in my earlier career as a manager when someone I knew came back to work for me. I remembered him especially from his rather drunken 21st birthday party and the image of him from there was still with me. Of course, he had by now matured into a great person, but it took me a while to reset my opinion.  I hear that Facebook has a similar impact when people post ‘the morning after the night before’ pictures and messages today.

The brain stores images in long term memory, including the faces of people we’ve met, along with the opinions we’ve formed – and even opinions of people we’ve never met. Think of a famous person – my guess is you have a view of what they are like, even without ever meeting them.

When you meet someone new, the brain flicks through its folder of images and, if it finds a match, it assigns the same characteristics from the person in memory to the person you’ve just met.

I was talking to the group about the importance of perceptions.  As a leader, people will form opinions about you, often based on the scantest of information. We can influence that perception.

We always have an impact when we walk into a room, especially if we are the leader. Too often, it’s not one we have chosen and people read things into our behaviour.  They extrapolate from the smallest frown assumptions that you are ritually bad tempered.

So it’s important to choose the impact you want to have

Adam Bryant talked about this at our recent Book Club based on his interviews with CEOs for his column in the New York Times, and his book, The Corner Office. He mentions one CEO who has a favourite interview question – “What misperceptions do people have of you?” Interesting enough, but it is just a set up for the next question: “What is the difference between a misperception and a perception?”

I want to say that a misperception is when people are wrong, but of course the truth is there is no difference.

This has also come out in the 360 degree feedback that our participants received.  One person said it wasn’t a fair reflection, because the person giving feedback only met them a few times in a year. It’s true that it may not be an accurate reflection of who you are, but is a very good reflection of how you first show up and the impact you have on new people.

As a leader, you need to be always aware of the image you project.

Another example from Adam’s book was the senior female executive who went into work one day with her scarf tied in a new and unusual way. Within a week, several other people in the office had copied the style

So, back to Panama. I had a great conversation with one of the leaders. He was talking about a briefing he had once on the customs and etiquette in a particular country. “They told me to be careful as in that country, people didn’t like to be seen to lose face. I asked him who in the world actually enjoys losing face?”

Oh, and the people were of course as typical a cross section of personalities as you’d find in any group of 20 people around the world. We spend a lot of time talking about diversity, and of course we all benefit from making the most of the rich variety that is humanity. However, let’s also appreciate the common characteristics we share.

On our leadership development programmes, when we ask for volunteers to demonstrate a skill, in the UK, we get told that this might work in America, where they are “more forward”. My experience is that in the US, there is just as much shuffling of feet and lack of eye contact as in the UK.

The difference is that when someone does finally crack, in the US the rest applaud, whilst in the UK, they wipe their brow and exclaim “Phew!”

So a few insights for me in my recent experiences I’m trying hard to remember to be careful of stereotyping people, and do my best to present the image I choose. I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts about this

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