By Emily Hoffman
I appreciated your blog article Recovering from False Perceptions. I agree that apologies can do more harm than good, and it is important to assess the need and/or reason for the apology. However, that post was more from the point of view of the individual with the false perception. I was interested to see what your advice would be to someone who feels they are the victim of false perceptions. I have an employee whose coworkers have labeled as lazy, uncaring, and untrustworthy. He wants to restore his image/brand with his coworkers and managers. What advice do you have for someone in this situation?
Wanting to Help
Dear Wanting to Help,
Combating false perceptions can be frustrating. We often feel as if we are the Victim: “Others have misjudged me despite my hard work, exemplary efforts, and noteworthy achievements!” We may cast our coworkers in a Villain role: “Why can’t they just see me for who I really am?” And then we start to feel Helpless: “This is so unfair and there is nothing I can do about it!”
So, while your question is about personal brand, I’d like to look at it through the lens of what we teach in Crucial Conversations Training about Mastering Our Stories. I will direct my comments directly to your employee, the person who wants to restore his brand.
What am I pretending not to notice about my role?
Whenever we tell ourselves a Victim Story (“Woe is me! I am the best, hardest-working employee here and others have unjustly judged me as lazy, uncaring, and untrustworthy.”), we need to challenge our story by asking: “What I am pretending not to notice about my role in the problem?” I have several ideas on how this relates to perception and personal brand:
1. False perceptions don’t exist
There is only your perception of my behavior and my perception of my behavior. Just because your perception is different than mine doesn’t mean it is false. When I judge your perception as false, it lets me off the hook. It allows me to say, “I am right and good and just and you are wrong.” I get to stop looking at me and my behavior because my perception is true and yours is false. But, if I can accept your perception as valid and real, I can shift my thinking and open myself up to self-reflection. I can clearly see what things I have done or not done that may have contributed to your perception.
2. Accept the starting point
You don’t get to tell people what your personal brand is, anymore than Nordstrom or Coca-Cola get to tell people what their brand is. You get to act and people get to perceive. Their perception is your brand. We sometimes confuse personal brand with personal identity, personal values, or personal mission. It is easy to say, “That is not my brand. I am disciplined, focused, and driven.” While it may be true that your personal identity is disciplined, focused, and driven, and that your personal identity impacts your brand, recognize that it is not your brand. Your brand is how others perceive you, not how you perceive yourself. While you get to influence your brand, you don’t control it because you can only influence, never control, others’ perceptions.
Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?
When we tell ourselves the story that someone else has falsely judged us, we get to cast them in the Villain role: “They are wrong. How could they be so unseeing of the true me?” The antidote to a Villain Story is to ask yourself: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do (or think) this?”
3. Understand your brand
If you want to know why someone thinks of you as lazy and untrustworthy, the easiest way to find out is to ask them. But before you rush out to start this conversation, realize this—asking for feedback on your personal brand is NOT a crucial conversation. Sure, the stakes are high and your emotions may run strong. And yes, there are differing opinions. So why is this not a crucial conversation? When we talk about crucial conversations, the goal is to fill the Pool of Shared Meaning: yours and mine. In this particular case however, the goal is to fill the pool with only their meaning. This is a focus group, not a conversation.
Think of it this way. If I work in marketing and want to know what my company’s brand is in the marketplace, I get a group of people together and ask them questions about how they perceive my company. When they respond, I may probe deeper to understand. What I don’t do is say, “Oh, that is interesting and not at all what we are really about. Our company is actually very different than that and here’s why.”
Asking people about your brand is all about getting information and understanding your brand. It is not about you convincing others with your words that they should see you differently.
What can I do right now to move toward what I really want?
When we accept that we can’t control others’ perceptions of us, it is tempting to tell ourselves a helpless story: “Their perception is their perception and there is nothing I can do.” We fail to see the difference between control and influence. While you can’t control others’ perceptions, you can influence them, as all good brand marketers know. You open yourself to influence when you consider this question: “What can I do right now to move toward what I really want?”
4. Build a positive brand, not a non-negative brand
Don’t wage war against your negative brand and try to convince people that you are “not lazy, not uncaring, and not untrustworthy.” Being “not lazy” is not a powerful brand. Rather than try to erase the negative brand, focus your attentions on defining what positive brand you want to create: “I am a hard worker that gets great results. I am a people person who cares deeply about individuals.”
Once you have defined that positive brand, consider what behaviors or actions on your part would drive that perception in others. What would someone see that would lead him or her to conclude that you are a hard worker who gets results? What would someone see that would lead him or her to the conclusion that you are a people person who cares deeply about individuals?
These might be new behaviors for you. But the key is that they need to be behaviors that are visible to others if they are going to impact others’ perceptions.
Armed with these new behaviors, you can then create a change plan for enacting these behaviors.
5. Close the loop
This is a powerful step in personal brand building. You have asked for feedback on your brand, accepted it, and now acted upon it. Now is the time to go back and close the loop. Return to those who gave you feedback and say: “Here is what I have done with the information you gave me. Have you seen an impact?”
This is powerful for two reasons. First, it validates and strengthens the relationship because you are demonstrating deep respect to the other person. You took what they said and did something about it.
Second, if the other person hasn’t noticed a change (and hence your brand hasn’t changed), this provides a nudge for them to reflect and re-evaluate. They might say, “I hadn’t noticed the change, but now that you point it out . . . ” Or, if upon reflection, they haven’t seen the change and their perception hasn’t begun to shift, that is a great data point for you as you consider whether the behaviors you have changed are driving the results you want.
I hope this gives you some helpful ideas. Just remember, your personal brand is about you, not about the other person. You can influence your brand when you stop telling yourself Victim, Villain, and Helpless Stories.