We all have watched as Donald Trump plays a dangerous mind game with his fellow presidential candidates: Jeb Bush is “low energy.” Rand Paul is “a spoiled brat.” As for Carly Fiorina, “Look at that! Would anyone vote for that face?”
Such insults can make Trump look foolish and not exactly presidential. But if they tap into an unspoken feeling or thought, these barbs can stick to the recipient -- and that is where they have the ability to do damage. In the case of Bush, persistent claims about his low energy compelled him to respond directly to that criticism in the second Republican debate. When the candidates were asked what their Secret Service moniker might be, Bush shot back: “Eveready.”
Taken together, these anxiety-inducing hits illuminate the challenges that high-profile leaders and other executives can face when their personal brand is under attack.
This can be especially daunting, as human beings rely on heuristics (mental shortcuts) to make sense of people and the world around them. Neuroscience reminds us that these snap responses are not easily undone once they take root. In a business context, this unofficial narrative can quickly translate into water-cooler buzz, creating invisible barriers to advancement that are hard to topple.
A rising star at one of the world’s top advertising agencies, Mark was popular with subordinates and bosses alike. He brought in millions of dollars in new business with his connections and outgoing personality. But whenever he was displeased with an individual at work or with a decision made in a meeting, he’d loudly make his feelings known by becoming belligerent, pouting or stomping out of the room. It didn’t take long for the label “Drama Queen” to stick to Mark’s personal brand.
As Ken Caruso, former head of HR for Standard & Poor’s, once told me, in the executive corridor there’s a formal narrative and informal narrative.
In Mark’s case, the perception that he could be thin-skinned, childish and overly emotional hurt him when the firm considered internal candidates for the next level of leadership.
So how do you avoid reinforcing these negative labels before they become the anvil around the neck of your reputation? How do you redirect public perceptions when criticisms stick, especially if these labels are based in reality? Put another way, what should you do when your personal brand takes a hit?
1. Become aware of what is being said behind your back.
Start putting your ears to the ground. Water-cooler gossip is one of the most reliable sources of what people are really thinking in an organization.
2. Reflect upon what is being said.
The better you understand how others perceive your behavior, the more productively you can respond. You might learn that the criticisms have some merit, or you might conclude that they stem from a misunderstanding, a rumor or a biased interpretation of your actions in some event.
3. Involve others in the investigative process.
Seek out the views of colleagues, employees, partners and even customers. Take an informal survey to better grasp how deep and pervasive the impressions are. Ask trusted stakeholders how you can improve and how you can turn the negative perceptions around. If the rumors are true, own up to them! If they are false, gently set the record straight, and even feel free to poke fun at the criticism if the narrative is absurd.
Either way, remain good-natured. Any impression of defensiveness can stoke the flames. However the investigative process plays out, you will have taken the narrative away from the water-cooler gang, made it your own and framed it in a positive light.
4. Create an action plan.
Prepare a strategy to deal with valid criticisms, identifying concrete, visible behaviors that can be changed. This is often hard to do on your own, so consider enlisting a coach or skill-development expert to help you.
5. Build a support network to watch for patterns of behavior that triggered the problem in the first place.
It’s easy to slip into old ways without key supporters to hold you accountable and a clear action plan to keep making improvements.
Changing perceptions is often harder than changing behaviors, as people are expecting certain behaviors from you by now. In psychology this is called confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret others’ actions based on preconceptions while ignoring new information that contradicts those preconceptions.
Becoming more visible and finding opportunities to display positive new behaviors can speed up the process of changing people’s minds about you. Bush definitely showed more energy in the second Republican debate, viewed by 24 million, and his “Eveready” line was a touch of self-deprecating humor that made him look clever and self-aware.
For the corporate employee, these rehabilitative opportunities could include spearheading a new project, joining a task force or leading the charge on a company-wide initiative. The point is, the more that people see you behave differently in familiar situations, the more these new impressions will stick.
Time is of the essence though.
All of these steps, and particularly the five leading to a clear action plan, need to happen quickly. The longer you wait before responding, the more you allow negative perceptions to gain traction.
Mark’s label of “Drama Queen” soon faded when, with the help of a coach, he became more aware of his emotions, learned to manage his behavior under pressure and reached out to others to keep him from slipping back into old habits. After a few months, no one even seemed to remember that Mark had a tendency to lose his cool. The nickname was old news.
Self-awareness and quick, proactive communication that is delivered with humility and authenticity lets people know that you’ve heard their criticisms and are not afraid to respond openly and productively. Then you are taking charge of your narrative rather than letting others do it for you -- or to you.