I once had a colleague in the news business who my father called a three-dollar bill. He said that because he thought she was phony. Her eye contact and body language never matched her words. It was as if the corners of her mouth turned up and down on cue.
She was so impressed with herself, that she thought she was down to earth. When I first launched my business, I sent announcement notices out to everyone I knew. Months later, I happened to run into her and she said: “I got your announcement, but my husband and I don’t do that type of thing.”
“What type of thing?” I asked. “Congratulate me?”
“No” she retorted. “We don’t give money to friends.”
At first, I didn’t think I heard her right. When I went onto explain that I wasn’t asking for money, she said well, it sounded like you were and people are always asking us for money. At the time, she was married to a wealthy man. Clearly, she needs to get over herself.
Phonies can be spotted miles away. They talk about themselves and think that others are also impressed with their greatness. The reality is most astute people, like my father, can see right through them.
Today, I coach business leaders to become more powerful communicators. I tell them what my television viewers used to tell me. They said if they met someone in person who they liked on TV, they hoped they were the same as they appeared to be on-screen. When they weren’t, the viewer felt let down.
You don’t’ have to be on TV to strive to be real. In business, if you are speaking at a meeting or conference, listeners want the real you. They want the person they saw walking down the hall or the person who joked with them over a cup of coffee. They don’t want a three-dollar bill.
Contrast my former colleague with superstar Billy Joel. Some years back, I was on a coast guard boat in New York City covering a celebration of the Statue of Liberty for the news organization I worked for. Suddenly, my videographer says “look, there’s Billy Joel.”
Sure enough, on another boat just a few feet away was Billy Joel. So, I did what any adoring fan would do. I started yelling hello to him. While many might have ignored me, he yelled hello back and he took it one step further.
He drove his boat right up to ours, introduced himself and launched into a conversation. Billy Joel wasn’t impressed with Billy Joel. Billy Joel came across as the same guy I had seen in concert many times. Funny. Warm. Personable.
Something similar once happened in a small boutique. My head was buried in a shirt rack when a male voice said: “Excuse me, do you think my wife would like this shirt?”
Looking only at the shirt and not at him, I engaged in conversation, asking him about his wife, the colors she likes and so on.
Then I looked up. The male voice was singer-songwriter James Taylor. He smiled, extended his hand and introduced himself. A few minutes later, he introduced me to his wife and they both thanked me for my help.
Billy Joel and James Taylor are much bigger stars than my former colleague. They don’t act like stars or pretend to be something they’re not.
Some might say people like my former colleague are just over-confident. Others believe them to be narcissists. So what’s the difference?
The dictionary definition of overconfidence is when someone has more confidence than they should have based on the situation and they misjudge their ability or opinion.
The Mayo Clinic research group defines narcissistic personality disorder as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration.” They’re conceited and believe they are superior to others.
At work, these people can be very difficult to communicate with as they typically talk about their projects and accomplishments, but show little interest in you. Because they aren’t completely honest with themselves, they may not be authentic with you.
If you have colleagues like this, there are a few things you can do to communicate more effectively with them.
- Don’t get personal. Take the emotion out of your voice when speaking with these people. Approach them as if you are speaking to a child. If you become emotional, the child will sense your discomfort and continue to test you. If you are focused, straightforward and come across as meaning what you say, the child will be more likely to back off.
- Create an action plan. Develop two to three key points about this person’s behavior that are interfering with you doing your job. Then come up with alternatives or solutions to that behavior that will make you more productive and efficient.
- Write it down. Keep a log of problems and conversations should you have to get human resources involved., but make sure to back them up with examples. For example, instead of saying, “My boss yells at me and it’s inappropriate,” help them understand what is happening. For example, I once worked with an editor who screamed obscenities and insulted people in front others. The screaming didn’t get him in trouble, but the use of foul language did.
Finally, be careful about your expectations of others. It’s been nearly two decades since that encounter with my former colleague so when I ran into her recently, I hoped she had truly become the person people see on the evening news.
Unfortunately, not. She asked nothing about my life or what I had been up to in the past twenty years. Like the three-dollar bill which was discontinued more than a century ago, she quickly disappeared letting me know her time to talk was limited.