I was recently asked, “How do you change your reputation?” As in, how do you change the way people perceive you?

Now, this is important throughout our careers, whether it’s shifting people’s views from our being tactical to strategic, or from being “a great number two” to being “a great number one”, or it might be more remedial, as was the case with me, and I’ll share that with you in a moment.

But remember that “Perception is reality”, as one of my former bosses used to say, and that means we have to deal with these perceptions as if they are real, because they are very real to the people that are perceiving it about us.

Also, remember that reputation is not the same as our identity. That’s good news, because then we can let go of the anxiety a little bit, because we don’t need to take it quite so personally.

Three ways to change people’s negative perceptions of you

Now, while it’s difficult to change perceptions when they’re ingrained, it’s definitely possible and it’s usually done through a combination of the following:

  1. Making a significant change in your behaviour, as in, almost 180 degrees different
  2. Making a concerted effort to demonstrate the change to the people that matter, and
  3. Time

1. Make a significant change in your behavior

Now, when it comes to making a significant change in the behavior, you want to start by looking at what contributed to your current perception, and what kind of future perception you want to create. That’s generally going to be around your behaviors, the words and language you use, and your approach and mindset.

For me, there was a point in my career where I had the reputation of being somebody junior people did not want to work for. I had the reputation of being an inefficient “resource burner”, and that’s because, in preparing for client meetings I was really insecure. I didn’t want to get caught out, so my crutch was having people prepare these giant presentation books that went from tab A to Z, and it turned out we only ever used tabs A through C or D, so it was a bit demoralising.

Instead, I needed to create a future perception of myself as very efficient in using resources, and surgical and strategic in the way I prepared for meetings. That, for me, meant instead of those big fat books, I went to very slim books, and ultimately to no books at all.

I came up with some stock phrases that I could use in meetings when people asked me questions I didn’t know the answer to. Things like, “That’s a great question, let me reflect on that and come back to you.”

2. Make a concerted effort to demonstrate the change to the people who matter

Now, when it comes to making a concerted effort to demonstrate the change, what’s important here is to identify the situations where this comes up and then the people involved.

The situations are really important, because if you can spot them and anticipate them even, then you can turn them into what I call pivotal moments, where you are introducing your new behavior, introducing those new data points. As you do that, you want to signpost these changes, really put a spotlight on it by using the language associated with that future perception you want to create.

So, for me, it was saying things like, “Hey, let’s be efficient about this,” or, “Let’s be surgical and strategic in our approach”, or “Let’s not use a book at all.”

3. Give it Time

Then, third, it’s about time, and there are three ways you can shift the amount of time it takes.

The first is about upping the frequency with which you can show people these new data points, so I call them having more ‘at bats’, to use a baseball analogy.

The second is to be sure that you’re making the most dramatic change you can. So for me, instead of making the shift from tab A to Z down to just tabs A through K, that wouldn’t have moved the needle for me, I needed to go from A to Z down to one tab, or no book at all.

The third one is enlisting people who have already seen you make the shift so that they can help change misperceptions when they hear it from others.

Your action plan

So, to summarise, when it comes to changing perceptions I’d like you to do three things.

First, is push yourself to get out there and demonstrate the changes that you’re making. Do that early, often and consistently.

Second, is be patient with yourself, and set up some milestones in between, so that you can feel encouraged that you’re making progress, because it might just come down to needing to change people’s perceptions one by one.

Third, is just keep at it.

Let me leave you with this question: what perceptions have you had to change, and what strategies have worked most successfully for you?