Unlike a politician, an actor or some other public figure, you probably don’t have a clear picture of what your reputation is and if you have resonance with your staff. In my experience, most organization leaders have little feel for how their mood and actions appear to their people. It’s not that they don’t care how they are perceived; most do. But they incorrectly assume that they can decipher this information themselves. Worse, they think that if they are having a negative effect, someone will tell them. They’re wrong.
The reality is people don’t tell leaders the whole truth. Sometimes they are scared of being the bearer of bad news. Others feel it isn’t their place to comment on such a personal topic. Still others don’t realize that what they really want to talk about is the effect the leader’s emotional style has on people – it feels too vague. Whatever the reason, leaders can’t rely on their followers to spontaneously give them the full picture.
Two separate research studies from reputable organizations confirm that the average American spends 15 hours per month criticizing or complaining about the boss – more time than is spent watching baseball, the so-called “national pastime.” Leaders who have no clue what others are saying about them behind their backs have no opportunity to correct the falsehoods, if incorrect, or change their ways if correct. Taken in small doses the impact is limited. But if we allow them to accumulate unchecked over time – through ignorance or neglect, they inevitably become a reality we have to deal with.
How Reputation Impacts Your Ability To Get Things Done
Your reputation is the filter through which people hear your words, interpret your actions, and respond to your requests. Depending on your reputation, it can make it easier or more difficult to accomplish the things that are important to you.
Consider Todd, the executive director of a successful non-profit. He was working on a new initiative that stood to improve the organization’s impact while making employees' lives easier. He was extremely frustrated because, despite his repeated efforts to promote the benefits, there was little buy-in or enthusiasm among the staff. A closer look at Todd’s reputation revealed that he was well-known for his “flavor of the month” initiatives. His constant flow of new ideas, shifting priorities, and lack of follow-through were a source of amusement rather than inspiration for the staff. Unaware of his reputation, Todd chalked the lack of response off to his people’s resistance to change.
Todd wanted more creativity from his team. In his mind, he gave them ample opportunity to participate in brainstorming and strategy meetings. According to him, employees offered few suggestions; and what suggestions were made showed little thought. What Todd didn’t realize is that employees viewed him as highly-opinionated and dismissive of others’ ideas.
On the flip side, there were ways in which Todd’s reputation worked for him. His employees viewed him as hardworking, smart, and passionate about the organization’s work. This sent a clear signal to employees about the standards they were expected to maintain.
Keep in mind that your actions will always be distorted by the conventional wisdom about you. If you are perceived as a difficult manager, that is the prism through which your actions will be seen. After a while, people are locked into one way of interpreting your actions and your reputation falls neatly into place. If people have a good impression of you, they are looking for the good. If you have a reputation that your people find bothersome, engaging and motivating them will feel like you are pushing a boulder up a steep hill.
Getting A Clear Picture Of What Your Reputation Is
Often there is a disconnect between how leaders see themselves versus how they are viewed by the people around them. A person’s reputation may vary based on the audience. Todd is a good example. He was viewed as highly accessible by his funders and community partners but inaccessible and preoccupied by his employees.
That’s why I urge leaders to complete a “360 assessment.” A 360 assessment gives you an objective and valid research tool to understand how your team views you as a leader and what you can do to be more effective.
No matter how strong, successful, and experienced a leader is, 95 percent of the time there is “breaking news” in the assessment. Most leaders are shocked at how their actions are viewed and misunderstood by their people. Many leaders at the top get limited, credible feedback on how they are performing. The only tool they have is bottom-line results. While financial results may be the final report card, they provide no guidance on what leaders need to do to inspire improved performance from their people.
Once you have a clear picture of how you are viewed, you can begin managing your reputation.
Changing A Reputation
Coaching clients often ask me if it is possible to change a reputation. The answer is yes. Your reputation isn’t something you are stuck with like your eye color, age, or height. Reputations are formed by a sequence of actions that reflect one another over a period of time. Our actions are something we have control over if we so choose. If you want to strengthen an existing reputation or begin building a new one, here are five points to consider:
1. Be clear about the reputation you want – Let that reputation govern your priorities, actions and decisions. Let’s say that you want a reputation with your staff for being fair and reasonable but like many successful entrepreneurs, you are also a competitive person with a strong need to win. You find yourself in a spirited debate with a program manager, and she has valid point of view. You will do more to build your reputation for being fair by acknowledging the validity of her point than needing to win the argument.
2. Be consistent in how you present yourself – People value consistency and dependability in their leaders. When you are inconsistent in how you present yourself, people get confused. The reputation you are trying to build gets muddled by conflicting evidence. Like a skilled politician, stay on message.
3. Be repetitive – Our brains are trained to notice repeat behaviors. Do something once that builds the reputation you want to create, and you plant a seed. Keep repeating the behavior, and the seed begins to take hold.
4. Be proactive in drawing attention to changes you’re making – People filter everything about you through their preconceptions, and they constantly look for evidence that confirms them. Let’s say your reputation is that you are always late for staff meetings. You can be on time for 9 out of 10 meetings but what people will notice is the one meeting you are late for – even if it is only seconds. They quietly file it away as exhibit B that you’re always late to staff meetings. You can significantly change their perceptions of you by drawing attention to the fact that you are seriously making an effort to be on time.
5. Be Patient – Despite what we might feel at the time, reputations aren’t made or lost in a single event. A reputation is formed over months or years, and it takes equally long to change it. If you have a reputation for losing your temper when someone makes a mistake, it will take months of holding your tongue before people notice it.
Think of changing your reputation as a 12-18 month process. You lay down one brick in the building and then another. Understand that it will take people a while before they see a change in you. The first time it happens they wonder “huh”, the second time it is a signal to pay attention. The third time a pattern begins to form. It is only until the behavior is repeated dozens of times or more in a row without exception that people begin to accept the change.
Take the time to learn what your reputation is and how it aligns with what you want it to be. Investing in your reputation is well worth the effort. When your reputation works against for you, it’s like riding a bike into a 25 mile-per-hour headwind. When your reputation works for you, it’s like riding with the wind at your back. It takes half the effort to get where you want to go and the ride is a whole lot more comfortable.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.
When your reputation works against for you, it’s like riding a bike into a 25 mile-per-hour headwind. When your reputation works for you, the wind is at your back. It takes half the effort to get where you want to go and the ride is a whole lot more comfortable.