How leadership reputations are won and lost

Dr Richard G. Ford is a corporate psychologist specialising in leadership coaching and senior executive assessments, and his book on ‘How Leadership Reputations are Won and Lost’ is out now (Libri Publishing). This book gets to grips with how and why careers are successful, falter or plateau; how our reputation is formed in the real world, and what makes the difference between winning and losing a reputation; and how to take control to manage and develop your reputation and build a personal brand.

Reputation can be difficult to describe and difficult to measure and quantify. It is a consequence of everything you say or do, it is what people say about you in your absence, and no other tangible or intangible asset is worth as much or has such a positive or detrimental impact on your career.

Many studies reveal that we care more about what other people think about us than we do about what may have actually happened, and yet there is little written about the subject. Our reputation cannot be understood as factual in any straightforward sense. A reputation is a set of perceptions, beliefs and memories that exist in other people’s minds, so a single event can be perceived and described in many different ways. Consequently, there can be several different perceptions of a person’s reputation. Unfortunately, what you actually do and what other people think of you are not always closely related.

The Leadership Reputation Paradox

There is a paradox in the way that reputations are formed. Contrary to what most people think, their career will be shaped not by what they achieve but what people say about them when they’re not in the room. It is not so much what you have done but the way in which you did it that is crucial for your reputation. For example, when you ask an individual about their performance at work, they will typically describe what they have done, and usually refer to tangible task achievements, outcomes and results. However, when you ask bosses, colleagues or senior executives about an individual’s performance at work, they use a different language and vocabulary: they speak with more passion and emotion, and they refer to the person by using about five or six adjectives or soundbites to describe how the person has behaved, what they are like as a person and how they achieved certain results.

So it seems that there are two parallel career currencies in play – one language used by the individual about themselves to describe their performance, and another language, which is often hidden or undisclosed, which is used by colleagues and bosses to describe that individual’s performance. Management is concerned about how you are likely to perform in the future, much less about what you have achieved to date which will become history very soon. What has taken place here is that the boss, senior manager or colleague has analysed, often implicitly, what has been achieved or not achieved, and they have formed conclusions about what behaviours, skills and personal characteristics have led to these positive or negative outcomes.

Hidden lexicon

Unfortunately, we do not have access to our reputation in the feedback provided by management as part of annual performance review meetings. Management do not often share what they believe about you because of the risk of demotivating you, and as a consequence, many individuals have limited understanding and appreciation of their reputation in the workplace. For many people, reputations are the secret language of organisational life – the unspoken elephant in the room – that can make or break careers. There is an entire hidden language of phrases and descriptions that are commonly used to describe us at work which rarely appear in performance review documentation.

Poor self-assessment 

Research suggests that we are generally poor at assessing our own reputation, and that we have immodest and unrealistic views of ourselves. On average most people think of themselves as anything but average! There is a very low correlation between how we see ourselves and how others see us, but the extent of the correlation can depend on the trait. There is more likely to be agreement about personality traits like extroversion and introversion but less agreement on personality traits like social skills, warmth, friendliness, likeability, altruism, collaboration, cooperation, consideration, helpfulness, agreeableness, kindness, generosity, planning, organisation, focus, conscientiousness and so on.

There are a number of reasons why people are poor at predicting their own behaviour, and hence their reputation. Firstly, many people make wrong group comparisons and tend to avoid comparing themselves to high performing groups. Secondly, we self-validate. We see what we want to see, and we hear what we want to hear. We point the finger rather than taking personal responsibility. Thirdly, there is egocentric bias in that some individuals may be inclined to inflate their self-assessment. Fourthly, in leadership and managerial and professional jobs, the criteria for success is more ambiguous and many individuals have limited understanding of the raised level of expectations and so measure their performance differently and often against less demanding criteria.

Reputation, bias and prejudice

Reputation is a blend of rationality and irrationality, and the irrational feelings or biases of colleagues can influence their perspective as much as their rational conclusions. We all process information differently, and unconscious prejudice does tend to complicate the way in which reputations are perceived. Social psychologists have developed models of the way in which people process information about their social world and they have tried to explain how we judge other personalities, and make causal attributions and interpret other people’s behaviour. We construct entire reputational narratives about other people on the basis of memories that may often be wrong. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we do not process information logically. We have a powerful need for idea alignment in our perceptions of other’s behaviour and when we are forced to look at conflicting evidence, people will often find a way to criticise, distort or dismiss the conflicting evidence so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing belief.

Attribution theory explains how we describe and interpret other people’s behaviour. We are all prone to the fundamental attribution error in that when we succeed we tend to attribute our success to our personality, abilities, attitudes or motivations, but when we fail we tend to attribute our failure to other external factors beyond our control. On the other hand, there is a tendency to attribute exactly the opposite causes to the success and failures of others. If someone else does well, we are often inclined to explain it as a consequence of external circumstances whereas if someone else performs poorly, we are more inclined to believe that they lack talent or competence.

Cognitive biases

There are many cognitive biases which distort our perception of someone else’s reputation. These biases may include:

- the ‘halo effect bias’ i.e. the tendency to maintain a consistent view of other people by liking or disliking everything about the person.
- the ‘leniency bias’, i.e. we have a tendency to be very generous, tolerant and accommodating in our assessments of other people.
- the ‘availability bias’ means our assessment can be overly influenced by the most recent events or memories.
- an ‘affinity bias’ can influence a person’s reputation if we are more likely to think well of people who appear to have a similar personality to our own.
- ‘first impression bias’, and / or ‘confirmation bias’ when we do not pay attention to evidence that does not support our ideas.
- ‘stereotype bias’: we all have a tendency to classify people into categories or stereotypes as it is convenient and easy way to understand and make sense of people.
- ‘self-perception bias’ can also affect our perception of other people in that if you want to be seen as a caring person then we may have a tendency to avoid unflattering descriptions of another person.
- ‘hindsight bias’, when we describe a person’s reputation based on the outcome of events and retrospectively try to create a coherent picture of the other person.
- ‘memory reconstruction bias’: when we have gaps in our memory, we have a tendency to reconstruct our memories into a credible and consistent narrative, and this may cause us to form a reputation about another person that is not a representation of what actually happened.

Subliminal impact on reputation

Subliminal impact on our perception of someone’s reputation may occur when we are not aware of how our thinking may be primed or conditioned by prior or associated events. There's the ‘priming effect’, which occurs when other people tell us what they think about the person. Similarly a ‘framing effect’ can occur when someone describes how an individual might be expected to behave. The ‘anchoring effect’ refers to the benchmark or informal norms we use when we are seeking to make sense of information given to us. We may also overreact impulsively and emotionally, and jump to a conclusion without waiting for sufficient information or evidence. And there's our tendency to think in 'black and white' terms, or catastrophically.

Outside-in and Inside-out perspectives

Our challenge is to get better at understanding how our reputation has evolved in order to provide ourselves with more opportunities to influence the process. There are two ways to look at a person’s reputation: from the outside-in perspective, which is outcome-focused or results-focused and refers to the impact or evidence-based consequences of our behaviour which can be perceived by colleagues; and the inside-out perspective, which is focused on behavioural intentions, refers to our motivations and how we aspire to behave and which may often be only known to ourselves.

The ‘Fundamental Five’ outside-in reputation winners refers to the key observable outcomes and evidence that successful high potential leaders need to demonstrate if they are going to win a good reputation.

  1. Culture building: The ability to create an environment in which people can give of their best.
  2. Strategic thinking: The ability to set vision, direction and initiate change.
  3. Delivering excellence: The ability to execute given tasks and maintain excellent operational standards.
  4. Team leadership: The ability to deliver high performance through others.
  5. Organisational influence: The ability to influence others at all levels and across all functions for optimum impact

The ‘Fundamental Four’ inside-out reputation winners refers to the key differentiating internal attributes that successful leaders need to demonstrate if they are going to win a good reputation. 

  1. Self-awareness: The ability to be realistic in self-assessing strengths and weaknesses, and be driven by the need to self-improve and search for marginal gains.
  2. Likeability: The ability to connect with a wide range of people at different levels and in different roles in such a way that colleagues feel good by the nature of the work interaction and the work relationship.
  3. Wise judgement: The ability to reflect and think broadly and deeply about problems with an open, curious mind and broad perspective.
  4. Perceptiveness: the ability to be interested, insightful and intuitive and wanting to explore how and why other people behave, think and feel in the way they do.

Reputation leakage

Reputation is lost in varying degrees but it is a fact that half to two-thirds of senior leaders will be fired, demoted or plateau at some point of their senior career trajectory. Reputation leakage refers to the inability of people in senior level roles to demonstrate positive changes in their competence or behaviour when they take on a new role, and leakage is caused by three different behaviour patterns:

  1. Slowness to adapt and change: The failure to adapt to the needs and demands of the new role.
  2. Slowness to recognise how expectations have changed: The failure to recognise how specific abilities need to be developed and the different criteria being used to assess one’s performance
  3. Slowness to show political maturity: The failure to invest in building collaborative relationships and understand the way that senior relationships need to be managed.

All the reputation leakage factors are critical and important, and they are often seen during the leader’s honeymoon period. However, all these behaviours are not necessarily fatal career-threatening liabilities as they can all be learned from, improved and developed with appropriate support.

The Fundamental five reputation losers

Reputation leakage behaviours are usually short-term and temporary. However the ‘fundamental five’ reputation losers are the most significant and important derailers because their effects are potentially longer-lasting and more difficult to change. The five reputation losers that will probably lead to career derailment if they are not arrested to some degree are:

  1. Untrustworthiness: inconsistent principles and values, and failure to build and maintain trust.
  2. Narcissism: excessive self-regard and self-importance, and failure to build a positive work environment where talent is nurtured so that people can contribute, add value and feel valued.
  3. Myopia: narrow perspective and failure to focus on the bigger picture and common purpose.
  4. Dogmatism: narrow tunnel-vision thinking and failure to exercise open, unbiased judgements.
  5. Emotional detachment: the inability to recognise personal emotions in oneself or others or to share personal emotions. This leads to an impaired capacity for empathy and for building personal and work relationships.

Taking the first steps to manage your reputation

An essential strategy for managing your reputation is to have regular access to good quality feedback data on how you are perceived within your organisation. It is important to appreciate that performance, and our reputation, is assessed on a continuum which will incorporate several degrees of colour and differentiation. For example, what are the criteria being used to assess my performance and how are these criteria weighted? What are the expectations, and the hard and soft performance indicators that senior managers look for at my level? How do I measure up against these expectations compared to my peers? What are the added value characteristics that would identify high potential over and above a satisfactory performance in my current role? 

However, extracting this information from senior managers is neither straightforward nor easy. Some managers do not want to deliver bad news and they may be uncomfortable in dealing with softer people issues. Other managers may mislead by being overly fulsome in their praise. The challenge is to create an appropriate win/win mindset for the feedback process, establish a strategy in terms of frequency and interval when these discussions should take place, and learn and practice the use of multiple questioning, funnelling questions and comparative questioning to elicit good quality data. For example:

-       What is your current perception of my potential? What can I do to improve or change that perception? 

-       What are the kind of behaviours and attitudes that you associate with high potential? How do I measure up?

-       How do I compare with others at my level?

-       What two or three improvements would make me more competitive for the next level?

And finally…

The main point about the book is to help you to gain some new ways of thinking about your career, about how so many psychological factors come together in the way that reputations are formed, and in the way that reputations are damaged. The book also discusses a number of ideas which will help you to take control to manage your reputation and to develop a powerful, authentic personal brand narrative that in turn will help to create a more exciting future of learning and success in whatever career path you choose to follow.

- 'How Leadership Reputations are Won and Lost', by Dr Richard G. Ford, is out now on Libri Publishing. Find out more about it here.

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