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When You Want to Change Perceptions

No leader is perfect, but you can improve your credibility with others

[I want to acknowledge my debt to Marshall Goldsmith and his book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There, for helping shape my approach to this subject]

A FORMER COLLEAGUE of mine believed that people really can’t change. A master of the malaprop, he would assert, “A leopard never changes its stripes.”

I cannot disagree more. People can grow and change, but, admittedly, it’s not always easy. That’s why most people, including those at the highest levels, need the help of a coach to make lasting behavioral changes.

In previous articles, I have discussed the issue of credibility, which is the currency of leadership. It is the most important determining factor for whether or not people choose to follow you.

What now? What if you discover that you have fallen short in some way, that you have displayed poor behaviors in the past that have diminished your credibility with potential followers? Can you change their perceptions in a positive direction?

Absolutely, you can! And the good news is that it isn’t that hard if you are sincere about making the required changes. There are four steps to change others’ perceptions. You can recall these as RAAM: 1) Recognize, 2) Apologize, 3) Advertise, and 4) Mobilize.

1. Recognize

We all know that nobody’s perfect. If perfection were required in order to be an effective leader, no one would qualify. Followers know this, of course, and don’t expect perfection from their leaders. What they do expect and look for are self-awareness, honesty, and the humility to admit mistakes.

Your followers already know you’re not perfect. What they wonder is if you know you’re not. Do you recognize that you say and do things that make them crazy? Are you aware that there are times they roll their eyes and think, “Here we go again!”? If your response is, “Nobody has said anything to me about it,” then you don’t get it. How many times has it proven to be a positive career move to give the boss critical feedback on his or her behavior?

So step one when you become aware of a failing is to recognize it with honesty and sincerity, and have the humility to acknowledge the fault before your followers. You’ll find amazing power just in this first step. People relax and sigh, “Finally! He gets it!” They become much more likely to cut you some slack just by this admission. But it isn’t enough in itself.

2. Apologize

When you discover that you have irritated, hurt, or let others down, the only mature and honest thing to do is to say, “I’m sorry.” A few more words that show you really do get it, that you do understand how your behavioral blemish has caused pain to them, are all that’s required. People don’t want you to grovel. They just want a simple apology.

There is one word you must avoid like the plague, however: But. An apology with a “but” at the end is no apology at all. It’s an excuse or rationalization: “I’m really sorry I lost my temper and reamed you all out, but I was having a bad day and you really ticked me off.” Someone who “apologizes” like this would be better off saying nothing.

If you offer a sincere apology ─ no “but” attached ─ you’re ready for the third step.

3. Advertise

After apologizing, the thing to do is to advertise your desire to do better in the future. Here’s an example: “I am sincerely sorry about my ___ (fault, failure, negative habit). I realize I have ___ (hurt you, let you down, caused you needless difficulty). I sincerely want to do better in the future, and will be working hard and getting help to do so.”

This both expresses your sincere regret about the past and puts the focus on your future behavior. No one can change the past. There’s nothing we can do about it but acknowledge past failures and try to learn from them. Change can only occur in the future. People know this and will usually give you a chance. Some may be skeptical and take a wait-and-see stance, but that’s pretty normal. After all, you hear people all the time who declare they will “turn over a new leaf,” but how many do? New Year’s resolutions are cheap.

By advertising your intention to improve, you draw their attention to it, meaning they’ll notice the change. Here’s why this is critical.

Imagine you’ve been in the habit of losing your temper, but through coaching and effort you go three months without an incident (but you did not advertise your intention). Then one day you blow it. How will people react? “There she goes again! She’s always doing this!” It’s as if your three months of improvement never happened. You get no credit for it.

Now imagine the same scenario, but this time you advertised your intention up front. Again you blow it. How do people react? “There she goes again! … But you know, it’s been a while since the last time. She’s actually doing better.” Assuming you acknowledge the failure quickly and get back on track, people tend to give you points for effort and honesty. Best of all, they notice your improvement.

To hardwire behavioral changes leading to changed perceptions, however, you need to put step four into place.

4. Mobilize

This fourth step to mobilize resources is necessary both to make the improvement and to bend perceptions in a positive direction.

To mobilize means enlisting a variety of resources to help in this effort. For example:

  • A coach to help you make the changes you desire and to offer accountability.

  • A process for identifying the onset of the weakness or fault before it is expressed, and to provide an alternative positive behavior. In Sherpa Coaching we use a process called “Weakness Mountain,” which I will explain in a future article. A defined process can help you make lasting behavioral changes.

  • “Deputizing” others to help. These can be the people you work with directly, or other accountability partners of your choice. They can be especially helpful in catching the undesirable behavior early, because they often already know the warning signs. Other people are also helpful in areas where we cannot see ourselves, such as in body language, facial expressions, or unconscious habits.

Mobilizing the help of others shows your good will and honest intention to improve. It changes the dynamic where others become your partners rather than victims, and is one of the best ways to improve their perceptions of you.

  • Following up with those people is an important aspect of changing perceptions. It means going back to them and asking, “How am I doing?” This reiterates your desire for their help, and, like the Advertise principle, calls people’s attention to your efforts to improve.

Needless to say, improving perceptions can only work where there are genuine efforts to change the fault, weakness, or habit. But be encouraged! You don’t have to be perfect to improve others’ perceptions. People just want to know you are aware of the shortcoming, and making an honest effort to do better. By applying these four steps, you can genuinely change the way people think about you and increase your leadership credibility. Li

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