Many professionals approach me for coaching when they are already having trouble with their jobs. When I start exploring the nature of their troubles, most of the discussion centers on the perceptions of their peers, managers, bosses, and executives that drive their career trajectory at their place of work and that seals the fate for the future of their career.
In almost each of these cases my clients defend their job performance with vehemence. Then they insist that perceptions are not something they can manage—or know how to manage—because they are out of their control. Yet, they feel as though they are the victims of these perceptions and feel helpless to do anything about them. Ironically, some of them even resort to working even harder to change the course how their career is evolving and to repair any damage done by these misperceptions.
The reason working even harder at your job to change people’s perception is misguided is because it’s analogous to your looking for lost keys on a dark night under a streetlight merely because of the better illumination under that light, even though your keys were lost miles away from that spot. It does NOT work!
So, what is the best way to take control of how people perceive you and to change those perceptions already entrenched in the minds of those who work with you?
Before I answer that question let me offer yet another analogy: I often compare a reality and its perception to a tree and its shadow respectively: The tree is real and its shadow depends on where the light source is coming from and its nature. By managing the light you can change the nature of the shadow and make it the way you’d like it. So, here are some suggestions that have worked well for my clients over the years and hope that you can make them work for yourself as well by throwing the right light and by creating the appropriate shadow, as you do your hard work:
Before: These are the strategies and tactics you employ to prevent misperceptions and to mold the right ones in the eyes of those that matter:
- Understand your role and what is expected of you from those who are directly connected with your work: Your boss, peers, and those that are actively engaged in your entire ecosystem. Do NOT assume, ask.
- From the beginning—or at least in the beginning, when you start a new job—make sure that the scope of what is assigned to you is clearly defined and take charge of defining that scope to all those who matter. Make sure that your deliverables—and timelines—are clearly understood to everyone, including you.
- If anything is getting in the way that interferes with your plan you must proactively deal with it by apprising your boss and other recipients of that work so that they are not surprised by the delay or change.
- Communicate by exception (only when things are off track) the status of your progress and keep everyone that matters in the loop.
- Acknowledge those team members who go out of the way to help your project and make sure that everyone is aware of who deserves the credit for your success. DO NOT usurp credit away from those who deserve it.
- When something goes awry acknowledge it and take responsibility, without immediately blaming others. When full facts become known share them with everyone without finger pointing.
- Do not try to bury ugly details, but make your findings open for all to see and to draw their own conclusions. If you were culpable of any misdeeds preemptively accept responsibility.
- When a project succeeds do not preemptively take credit for it, but give credit to the deserving contributors and be specific about what they did in that success.
After: These are the tactics you adopt to change the already formed perceptions and to change others’ view of your work.
- Learn how to read perceptions of those who work with you and how that affects your work and what you are assigned. If you have a 360-degree review process ask your detractors to participate more than your advocates if you really want to learn how you are being perceived. If you do not have this formal process then learn how to glean what others think of you from your interactions with them (again, ask your detractors).
- Once you make a list of perceptions others around you carry prioritize that list and work on the ones most important to improve your career trajectory.
- Take the top 4-5 perceptions and make an action plan to deal with them to remedy the situation and to change the existing perceptions.
- Meet with those who have participated in your own “perception discovery” round and present to them your action plan and ask for their opinion on how you could improve that plan. Merely acknowledging the existence of these perceptions and teaming with those who will help remedy those mindsets is usually half the battle.
- Diligently work on your action plan and periodically meet with the same people to see if they observed any changes in your “performance.” To them their perception IS your performance!
- Depending on your momentum on each item on the perception list make course correction.
- Share the new course of action with those that are observing you and double check on your progress. Thank each person with specifics of how they helped you in the process.
- Redo your 360 in a year and see the changes. Share the results within your ecosystem.
Although most believe that perception become rigid and hard to change they are not as hard as most believe. With the right strategic approach it is possible to change others’ view of you and, in turn, change your performance and even amplify it!