Recently, I was talking with a dear friend who was about to interview a candidate she had unknowingly placed in a professional reputation “box”. The best way to describe this friend is fierce, in charge, and collaborative. And she was adamant about hiring someone who was different from her and could challenge her.
“What do you think?” I asked, “Does Pat have the skills you need?”
“Well, Pat is nice, but I just don’t think this is the person I need,” she replied.
“Well, Pat is more of a B player.”
I pressed further. Finally, she revealed that she doubted Pat’s strategic abilities. I asked for examples, but she didn’t offer anything concrete. Finally, I asked if she felt she might be biased based on her own personality. Suddenly, her face lit up with recognition.
Soon afterward, my friend thanked me for the conversation and said she was ready to approach the interview with a newfound lens. In this case, it was helpful to be sitting next to an executive coach at just the right moment. But that’s not always possible. So here’s some advice you may want to keep in mind…
Professional Reputation “Boxes” Are All Around
How do you know when assumptions about others are limiting your actions? What opportunities is this behavior causing you to miss? Here are several more examples:
- Harper was introduced to the team’s new manager as the “go-to person” for everything, and Harper strove to live up to that persona. But recently, when stumped by a critical question, Harper made up an answer, rather than asking for help. When it became clear that the answer was wrong, trust was lost. Now, Harper no longer meets the expectations of the boss or colleagues.
- Tracey is a mid-level executive who feels unsafe saying something in a group because all of Tracey’s comments are disregarded or met with skepticism. Tracey is unsure how this happened, but suddenly feels perceived as ineffective without knowing why.
Inside That “Boxed In” Feeling
In each of these cases, the individual feels trapped by a professional context they can’t seem to escape. It can be debilitating and alienating. Like the famous movie Gaslight, everything they say or do is received within a preconceived mindset: “B-Player”, “untrustworthy”, or “ineffective.”
This can create a sense of helplessness that fuels frustration, anxiety, and depression. At work, it directly influences an individual’s perceived competency, resulting in lower performance scores and fewer professional opportunities. And when left unchecked, it can drive valuable people to resign.
These situations may be extreme, but the themes are universal. At some point in life, we all feel like nothing we say or do can change the way others perceive us. But when perceptions go negative at work, organizations can lose talent that must be replaced, often at a higher cost.
The Roots of a Professional Reputation “Box”
There are many ways a professional reputation can become trapped in a perceptual box. Behavioral research highlights underlying factors. For example:
- A famous large-scale audit of executives found that once leaders see an employee in a political context or situation, it solidifies their professional “reputation.” After this point, there’s little an individual can do to counteract this perception.
- Often, the “horn effect” takes over. This is essentially the opposite of the “halo effect,” where people tend to assign negative attitudes or behaviors to someone based on one arbitrary aspect of their appearance or character.
- “We only see what we want to see” is a well-known cognitive bias. Countless studies have shown that our desires affect our perceptions, regardless of reality. We tend to ignore some facts in favor of others that support our original premise or perceptual bias.
With attitudes and assumptions like these, we put individuals in a difficult loop to maintain — they can either do no wrong, or do nothing right. And once others agree, there’s a groundswell of opinion to undo. The situation seems impossible to remedy.
However, by recognizing and responding to these issues, leaders can help employees change their reputation, and hopefully keep them on board.
How to Break Out of a Reputation Box
If you’re an individual stuck in a reputation box, what should you do? First, get a blank book so you can write about your experiences, feedback, and things you want to change. Acknowledge what you feel and what you know. Then start adjusting aspects of the situation that are within your control. Specifically, you can:
1. Change your point of view: Coach yourself by considering your situation as if you were an outsider. What advice would you give someone in your position?
2. Change your behaviors: Note your feelings and reactions to challenging situations. What are the underlying triggers? Do you see a pattern involving a particular person, context, or environment? When this happens, how do you feel? What is your reaction?
3. Write what you want to say: Keep a book of helpful phrases. After a difficult situation, we often say, “Wow, I wish I had said this instead of that!” Please write it down! What would you have preferred to say and why? This increases self-awareness. It can also prepare you to respond more effectively when similar situations arise in the future.
4. Maintain a curious mindset: Develop questions that can help you learn more when interacting with others. For example, “Tell me more about that.” Or “I’m not sure I follow. Could you help me understand your perspective?” Or “What questions do you have?” Or “What do you think about this approach?”
5. Examine your outlook: If we appear defeated, others will perceive us that way. Instead, stay curious. Ask “why?” more often. Focus on staying open, gathering information, and receiving feedback.
How Organizations Can Get Rid of Boxes
Escaping “the box” isn’t just for individuals who want to manage their reputation. What if you lead a group, department, or organization? How can you fight this common situation within your teams?
1. Recognize bias: Understand that the best way to combat bias is to teach team members about it and call it when you see it. This includes all cognitive bias — halo, horns, perception, and beyond.
2. Give people opportunities to change and grow: Provide options for your employees to be mobile, try new managers, and gain new skills.
3. Actively coach people and share feedback: This seems trite. However, leaders tend to fail at providing constructive feedback when team members need it most. And it’s not just about timing. Feedback quality is paramount. So take care to offer actionable input and recognize that continuous learning is far more powerful than a one-off comment.
4. Embrace data-driven performance management: An MIT Sloan research study on performance management clearly shows that a flexible, data-based development and performance management system decreases backward-looking bias and other undesirable aspects of the performance management process.
A Final Note on Escaping the Reputation Box
These are some easy and effective techniques that can produce quick and positive results. I have personally witnessed a turnaround when coaching people to use these methods. Success depends on resilience and the perseverance to follow through and keep moving forward. But for all the Pats, Traceys, and Harpers out there who feel you can’t escape a negative professional reputation — and to your employers — I encourage you to stay curious and keep thinking outside the box!