Do you know someone who seems to have no clue about how they are perceived? It can lead to some pretty horrifying after-effects, worthy of recounting as a terrible tale of warning. This is a story about a friend of mine, a brilliant functional expert on quality management, who never saw it coming. But the ‘audience’ for this thriller surely did. And there’s a lesson for us all in it — that your opportunities might die a gruesome death, all because of a bad reputation.
My friend Neil (name changed to protect the innocent) was a vice president for a large technology firm, and he had a great idea for stimulating innovation among teams, which could potentially transform his organization. He saw how his employees and co-workers could be motivated to think in innovative ways if they were shown that their ideas count, and he knew how the organization could be tapped for this purpose.
Neil beamed with confidence and readied a plan (with management’s buy-in) to lead a team of volunteers for evangelizing innovation. Campaigns would be run on lateral thinking, LEAN and Agile methodologies; cross-functional collaboration would be encouraged; and employees would be persuaded to think creatively and suggest solutions for improving work, processes, services, and products.
Management loved the relevance it carried; and his boss loved the quality of thought that went into it.
But would it work with Neil at the helm? Here’s where the story takes a dark turn. Efforts to recruit volunteers from his peers or other functions failed. “I detest his presumptuousness. It’s too tough to work like this with a person who has an opinion on everything under the sun,” shrugged off a colleague. Interest waned and the initial excitement died out – leaving Neil devastated, with a very public failure on his hands. It wasn’t until after the project tanked that someone finally let him know how his image had prejudiced his would-be team against him.
The most mortifying element for Neil was the revelation that people perceived him completely differently than he thought. Where did this irritable, nosy and domineering person emerge from? He thought he was a suave, knowledgeable, and amenable colleague at the office. Where did the fault line lie? How could he have been so blind?
So Does Reputation Really Matter?
It did for Neil. How others perceive us can directly influence the value they will assign us in the workplace. What was potentially a game-changing move for Neil’s career turned out to be a non-starter, affecting his progression and the team’s morale.
And for what it’s worth, I agree it doesn’t feel fair. Maybe you’ve been told, “it doesn’t matter what others think of you… what matters is your competence and what you think about yourself.” Neil’s experience brought home that this is half-true: people base their opinions about others on many things – their own biases and prejudices, as well as our behavior.
For someone like Neil, his behavior was inconsistent with someone who wanted to be seen as a mentor, thought leader, and influencer. His repartees in team meetings were resented; his sense of humor did not always go down well; and his eagerness to impart knowledge and hold forth on subjects dear to his heart were considered uncalled for. He developed a reputation that was at odds with how he wanted to be perceived, and never sought enough impartial input to diagnose that he had a problem.
And reputation problems don’t just ‘stick’ to the job — they can follow you. In today’s always connected world, any adverse online comments on you could be picked up by potential employers. So Neil’s issues with perception had to be addressed, both online and offline — or he would just make a sequel to this horror story (and you know what they say about sequels).
You Are Already Being Judged (and Googled)
Whether you realize or not, there are conversations taking place about you that you may not be part of. You don’t have the choice of wishing them away, simply because you are not hearing them.
In social media, at least, there is a blood-trail to follow. Market research firm Cross-Tab fielded a survey that highlights some startling trends among recruiters and HR professionals that adversely affect job choices for seekers. They found that 89% of these recruiters have used online data mining in their process (and consider it appropriate to do so). 70% admit to rejecting candidates using the data they found, even if they admit that they aren’t fully assured of the accuracy of the information.
[In the Cross-Tab report] the kinds of information that influenced employer decisions to reject candidates included ‘inappropriate comments or text written by friends and relatives,’ as well as that ‘written by colleagues or work acquaintances.’ Kate Dutro
Some employers make this kind of data mining a formal corporate policy, and all it takes is presenting the wrong kind of collaboration or abrasive personal style to get tongues wagging. And not in your favor.
Someone Else May Be Sabotaging You
Maybe it feels like someone is ‘out to get you!’
Even if you don’t blog or post obsessively and publicly to Facebook, other people may be posting pictures or comments about you, and you’ll want to be informed and able to take action if you need to.
John P. David wrote about one executive who didn’t give a damn about maintaining an online presence. However, after going through a particularly bad break up, he learned that staying ‘off the grid’ wasn’t any protection when the other person gives vent to their feelings through posting online. The online viral outbreak of his disrepute was so severe that he had to engage specialists to contain the damage.
It may really be about you!
Or maybe it feels like “the call is coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!”
It’s not always someone else’s fault. Neil had to come to grips with the fact that his worst enemy was himself, and wake up to the reality of his own behavior. Sometimes the evil villain in our stories can be our own lack of awareness around ourselves, so be prepared to address your own style and demeanor if it is found to be the source of your problem.
What Do You Need To Do?
Just like any hero or heroine in a horror movie – the secret is: don’t wait and be hunted, but take action. Be it personal branding or social media management, you have to take control of your reputation in order to manage your image. Build on your strengths by focusing on what is unique and authentic about you. Then, identify your weaknesses and manage them.
“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.”
― Henry Ford
There are plenty of ways to track people talking about you online. And you may even want to take an audit of how exposed you are every now and then. As far as your offline brand, if you’re not cultivating a mentor or good friend resource at work to give you the skinny on your offline reputation, then consider this scary tale a wake-up call. It’s good to have access to an outside perspective. And as they say, if you want a better reputation, you might have to be a better person.
Dorie Clark (amongst other great bloggers and coaches) has a great article about taking corrective measures to contain the damage from scandalous online postings. Her advice includes addressing the detractor directly, then moving to the host of the platform that you’ve been attacked on, and finally working to ensure that future searches cast you in the best light.
Remember, your reputation is a critical asset for your career. It precedes you in meetings, conversations, and professional relationships with clients, colleagues, and superiors. If you are perceived as insipid or a tough nut to crack, you may not be able to grab all the opportunities to move forward in your career. And as Neil’s story shows us, not paying enough attention to it might prove to be a great risk.
And that kind of horror story belongs in a novel or the movie theatre, not your life.
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