Changing the way others see us is difficult -- very difficult. Here’s why: People form opinions about us, fairly or unfairly. As an example, say that others believe that you’re overly harsh or critical. Humans like to be right, right?
Therefore, once an opinion is formed, we tend to look for evidence that supports our beliefs. Conversely, we ignore behavior that contradicts our thinking. This is particularly true when the thing that contradicts our perception of someone is the absence of a bad behavior -- a non-behavior.
We have worked with several mid- and senior-level executives to help them change their colleagues' perceptions. In one case, an executive was known for being very direct. He didn’t mince words when he saw a problem or something that could be improved. His subordinates came to expect his criticisms and were used to hearing him voice them in front of their coworkers.
So, he changed: The executive began seeing that his behavior was having a negative effect on the groups he led. He found out, for example, that some of his direct reports labeled his office “the gates of hell.” So, he started to watch what he said. This executive then actually managed to go for several days without as much as one critical word.
But he slipped. He criticized one of his direct reports in front of the entire team at a meeting -- and immediately regretted his behavior. Yet it was too late. He had said something harsh. And that action reinforced others' perception of him.
The trouble with getting others to see and believe in a change in the offending person's behavior is that people are unlikely to think, “That’s the first harsh thing I’ve heard the boss say in a few days.” Instead, people are more likely to think, “Yep, just what I thought, always negative.”
So, even though you, the offending person, may have improved, say, 95 percent, that one slip will reinforce what people think; perceptions will remain unchanged. This is why changing the way people see you is so difficult.
Still, changing how you're perceived is not impossible. The key is to get people to notice your improved behavior, something that is unlikely to happen without some prompting word or phrase from you. A technique that has worked well for us over the years is to ask for help from the person whose opinion you want to change. In the case of our executive-client, we had him enlist the help of a couple of his key subordinates.
He did this by saying, “I have received feedback that I am too critical and I know it’s true. I’m trying to be less negative, but changing is difficult. Would you be willing to help me?” In our experience, this request usually gets a favorable response. Generally, people ask, “What can I do to help?” This was the case with the executive. He explained that he wanted his observers to pay close attention to his behavior and note every time he said something that could be perceived as harsh. He then met individually with them to get their feedback.
After several weeks of identifying only a limited number of times when the executive was harsh, his observers began to accept that he had changed. There was the added benefit that they began to spread the word to others within the organization. Over time, the executive was able to reduce the frequency of these feedback sessions. And once he and others had accepted the new behaviors as normal, he was able to phase-out the sessions altogether. He was able to get people to notice a non-behavior.
One caution here: Don’t start this process unless you are serious about making a change. If you ask for feedback but don’t make the necessary change, you’ll only call attention to your bad behavior more. You’ll make the situation worse.
Changing the perception that others have of you is hard work, but, with persistence, it’s do-able. The process we've outlined here is the best one we have found for getting people to notice positive behavioral change. That way, you can finally stop worrying that others are describing your office as the "gates of hell."