Portrait of artists Jean Baptiste de Champaigne and Nicolas de Plattemontagn (Courtesy: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)
Ideas for Leaders #720

Why Workplace Conversations Are More Successful than You Believe

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Key Concept

In conversations with new people, most people underestimate how positive of an impression they are making A new study reveals the prevalence of this ‘liking gap’: the fact that most conversation partners like you more than you believe. This liking gap can have implications in the workplace, including the discouragement of collaborative ventures and an additional challenge for new employees.

Idea Summary

Conversations with new people are an important part of most people’s social and professional lives. After such conversations, people often seem to underestimate whether the other person in the conversation enjoyed the conversation and liked them. A series of five studies confirmed what the researchers call the ‘liking gap.’ 

In the first section of the first study, five-minute conversations between sets of two participants were recorded. Participants then answered questions on whether they liked the other participant, and whether the other participant liked them. Participants were also tested for four personality traits — narcissism, rejection sensitivity (i.e. being highly sensitive to rejection), self-esteem and shyness. The study showed a significant liking gap; that is, participants liked their conversation partner more than they (wrongly) believed the conversation partner liked them. Only shyness had an impact: people who were less shy did not show this liking gap.

One possible reason for this liking gap is that people don’t send overt signals during a conversation that they like each other. However, in the second part of the study, third-party observers who watched the recordings of the conversations accurately assessed how much the partners liked each other. This proved that the signals were there (since the third-party observers noticed them), but that the conversation partners did not pay attention to them. 

A third study explained one reason for the liking gap: participants in this study had continuous negative thoughts about their own performance during the conversation and then projected those negative thoughts to the partners, thus (wrongly) assuming that their partners did not like them as much as they actually did.

Subsequent studies showed that this liking gap manifested itself with longer conversations, and in non-laboratory settings (specifically, workshops on ‘How to Talk to Strangers’). The final study was conducted with university suite mates over the course of a year. At five points during the year, the suite mates were tested for the liking gap. In all but the final test, the liking gap persisted.

Except for the outgoing participants of the first study, the research showed that the liking gap was persistent, whether conversations are short or long, or even over the course of continuing relationships. 

Business Application

The liking gap has a variety of workplace implications, including in areas such as on-boarding of new employees, collaboration and teamwork, and people management. The core lesson of this research is that most people don’t really know what their conversation partners are thinking of them, or believe that they are making a negative impression. This can lead to a reticence to engage with others. 

For example, new employees may feel less welcome and less comfortable in new job situations, believing that current employees are not really interested in interacting with the ‘newcomer.’ The same could be said of a new manager or boss introducing him- or herself to the workforce.

The liking gap may also undermine teamwork and collaboration — potential collaborators might be reticent about approaching others, fearing that they will make a poor impression (or have made a poor impression) on co-workers.

With communication a vital part of any manager’s skillset, this study also raises the interesting question of whether managers and leaders are underestimating the impact of their conversations. Perhaps managers and leaders, as with the study participants, are negatively assessing their own performance, they ignore the signals of whether they ‘getting through’ to or connecting with their employees.

In some ways, the liking gap is good news: your conversations are not going as badly as you might think. Thus, whether you are a new employee, a new manager, or someone reaching out to others (especially for the first time), this research encourages you to believe more in yourself and your communication skills.

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Idea conceived

  • September 2018

Idea posted

  • November 2018

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