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False Perceptions Revisited

Dear Emily,

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.

Victim story: 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.

Villain Story: 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.

Helpless Story: 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.

Good luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

19 thoughts on “False Perceptions Revisited”

  1. Barbara Roche

    Nicely stated and very helpful.

  2. Sheldon

    A great article! You’ve provided an excellent road map for anyone who truly wants to improve their relationship with others. You’ve also given additional clarity to the book “Crucial Conversations.” Thank you.

  3. Diane Rivera

    I appreciate you views on perceptions!
    Thank you!

  4. M. Wilson

    I love Vital Smarts and the essays on how to communicate positively. One of the concerns I have is that things are predicated on “what would a reasonable, sane and rational person do”. When it comes to race, gender and cultural identity, the rational, reasonable goes out the door.
    I use the Vital Smarts constantly and have had excellent results. When the reasonable has been exhausted, the unreasonable has to be considered.

    1. Margaret Maxfield

      How nicely you write, Emily Hoffman. One tiny point: Try “different FROM” rather than “different THAN”. “Different” is not comparative in nature.
      Ancient Writer [90]

  5. C. Layden Colby

    Thanks, Emily, for a very compelling strategy to become better through following up on feedback. Very easy to see how I can implement it.

  6. Jack Beckman

    I cannot agree with your position that others determine your brand. You determine your brand, but you cannot determine what others perceive your brand to be. If you relinquish your brand to everyone else, you no longer have value, only to be told what your value is. What you can do when you ask others about your brand, is tell them what you are trying to do. Then you ask them if that is what they see, and work form there. CocaCola and Nordstroms have branded themselves in a certain way, and don’t try to present themselves as something they are not. CocaCola doesn’t brand itself as medicine, they brand themselves as refreshment. Nordstroms doesn’t brand itself as a discount retailer, and people understand that and don’t go there for bargain basement items. Feedback is a gift, to be used to solidify or modify your brand. It shouldn’t be a demand to conform to someone else’s idea of who you are.

  7. Robin

    Brilliant. Thank you. Looking forward to implementing these strategies.

  8. Parker Johnson

    What about situations where sexism, racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, prejudices or stereotypes are mixed with “false perceptions”?

  9. Amy R Depwe

    Fantastic Article. I am happy I took the time to read it in detail! THANK YOU

  10. Kathie Moe

    I thought this article was truly outstanding in every way. Thank you for helping me to see myself from a different perspective. The term “brand” was new to me. I love Vital Smarts and I’m so glad you send out the newsletter.

  11. Carole Telman

    I like the way you move the focus off of “victimization.” One question, however: What if the actions the “complainants” would except from you are unreasonable? For example, what if other members of the staff are taking work home with them and expecting you to do the same in order to shed the brand of “laziness?” In other words, what if you discover that they are basing their perceptions on an unrealistic premise? Would you not “share your meaning” at that point by indicating that their expectations are outside the purview of your job description? Of course, depending on their response to that, it would appear to me that you just have to thicken your skin and be at peace with yourself, or you would need to consider finding another place of employment.

  12. jeannie clinkenbeard

    “False perceptions don’t exist” Wow, what a powerful reminder that there is no right or wrong perspective.

    1. MoralCompass

      Said Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro, and let’s not forget, Saddam Hussein.

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    […] post from Vital Smarts is about how a personal brand relates to the perceptions of others.  Your brand is co-created with […]

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    […] post from Vital Smarts is about how a personal brand relates to the perceptions of others. Your brand is co-created with […]

  15. Mary

    Wow- Even though my situation is very different your core information is very applicable. This is could help alot of people if they apply it. It sure helped me.

  16. Jo

    What about where -isms and other intolerances exist? Racism, sexism, agism?
    In the case of black women – ‘Angry Black Woman’ Phenomena – always having to make others feel comfortable in your presence, mostly perceived as loud, malicious, crude and angry. Anytime you make attempts to speak up “here she goes again.” If you have a crucial conversation – “she bullied me.” The Angry Black Woman by virtue of being her, is not permitted the same safe spaces as her white counterparts to be annoyed, to say “that is not acceptable,” to match the tone of others. She has to mind her tone of voice and manage her facial expressions and usually cannot be her true self lest she is perceived incorrectly, usually from a place of fear that criminalized almost everything she does.
    With that, I must say false perceptions very much exist esp. where inherent bias exists.

    1. Jeff

      You make some very good points. I’ve just had a review and while a lot of what Emily says is true in an IDEAL world, unfortunately the REAL world consists of people coming at you with unconscious bias, ageism (they don’t like change, slow to learn, forget things etc etc) and personality bias – you need to become more outgoing, more of a team player, more visible, do talks, socialise with the right people. All great for an extrovert but total discrimination against introverts. And as you mention the casual racism. The list is long. Many bosses would do well to take a long hard look at their own false perceptions and unconscious biases before even talking to a subordinate!

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