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Do You Really Know Who You're Dealing With?

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I accepted a new position last week that will involve, once again, being a supervisor.

I've been preparing for the role by asking seasoned managers for their input on how to hit the ground running, and for 360 degree type feedback about their perceptions of me at work. You can never ask enough.

As I walked past the desk of an administrative assistant with whom I am friendly, I asked if I could “interview” her. It took about thirty seconds to realize that I was talking to someone with extensive managerial experience, in both the military and in the private sector. 

For months, she had seemed to belong to a certain category, but after all this time it was clear: I didn't know who I was dealing with.

Many of us naturally categorize people this way, but branding has made us even worse. We've become accustomed to making quick decisions. We need to because we all suffer from information overload. It's much easier to think: Look at the shoes, she must be rich. Look at his coat, he must be poor. And then subtly adjust our reactions accordingly.

Remember the movie “Trading Places,” with Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd? Eddie was a con artist and Dan was a spoiled an incompetent rich kid, until each assumed the position of the other. Or “Freaky Friday” -- the original, with Jodie Foster, and the remake, with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. Mom and daughter switch bodies, but nobody else knows.

Remember Big, with Tom Hanks? That piano scene in FAO Schwartz?

You never, never know who you're dealing with.

It’s said frequently: The person who's your colleague today may tomorrow be your boss.

You knew that. But how often do you really think about this principle in everyday life?

In the hall I told a normally quiet colleague about my new position.

"I knew it already," he said.

"How did you know that? I didn't even tell you," I answered.

"Because you were disinterested last week. It was in the air."

Do you realize how closely you are being observed? Do you know who is observing you? Do you respect the depth of their perception?

At the nursing home where we used to visit my husband's mom, the residents had private rooms. Each room had a shadowbox on the outside with personal photos and a memento, whatever the residents chose to put there.

It was easy to dismiss those shadowboxes because they were small and they tended to look the same. Who would stop and inspect someone else's unfamiliar pictures?

But one woman had her entire door plastered with newspaper clippings. These were impossible to ignore. They lauded her career as a decorated military veteran, the first to do this and the most accomplished at that.

One time I peeked inside, just a little, to see who this woman was. She was small and skinny. I couldn't see her face but her body was inanimate.

In the lunchroom I wouldn't have picked this woman out of the crowd. But I knew Mom, and why she was so special to me. 

I don't know you, and you don't know me. 

Don't assume anything about anyone.

Copyright 2016 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.

(Image via sandro/Shutterstock.com)

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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