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Are you the person in the office everyone expects to make plans, listen to problems or run the numbers? Do you ever wonder how this became the story of who you are at work?
There is a good reason for why people see you in a certain light—and it has nothing to do with what’s actually in your job description. It has to do with what comes first: the first things people learn about you, the first impressions you make, or the first activities you engage in.
These become your signature at work. Why? They all involve perception and how people make sense of the world. To save effort and time, our mind unconsciously organizes information and experience into mental maps—and some of these maps are biased. Perceptual biases are mental shortcuts that influence impressions, understanding, and decision-making. Research shows that when companies actively try and reduce perceptual bias in their decision-making, they earn higher returns.
I have seen this play out in my years as a management consultant. I once worked with a team who counted an Ivy League athlete as a member. Management believed that he was a star. His performance on projects indicated otherwise, yet management promoted him.
In this situation, two biases could be at play. There’s the halo effect—letting one positive attribute about a person define their entire story. (In this case, it was his Ivy League education.) And there’s confirmation bias—ignoring information that contradicts what you already believe. These biases can also work against you in the workplace.
Why it’s hard to change how people see you.
People are creatures of habit. Habits save time and energy, so it’s easier for people to have a story about who they think you are, rather than get to know you. You also might be perpetuating how people see you: it may be easier to behave according to a script than to try and change people’s minds. However, not changing an unwanted narrative can ultimately be limiting to your career and keep you from opportunities. Here’s how to change the way people view you at work.
Be honest about who you are and how you want to be known.
Don’t be something you’re not because you want to be accepted. And don’t go along with people’s misperceptions. I’ve seen firsthand how this can backfire. A young careerist joined a team whose members never had a good thing to say about their company’s strategy. To fit in, even though it was contrary to her positive nature, she joined in with their negativity. Three months later, senior management asked me to work with her, viewing her as unconstructive and potentially a bad cultural fit. It turned out they were partially right: she was a bad fit—not for the company, but for that team. I suggested they transfer her. Years later she is still working with the company and spearheads their new employee orientation committee.
Do something unexpected.
Acting counter to a person’s biased impression of you can dramatically change how they will see you in the future. A junior executive in a consumer goods company was known for having creative ideas, but not known for having the skills to make her ideas actually happen. However, in a meeting with senior management she led her discussion for a new marketing drive with the logistical and financial business case—and she immediately changed their idea of what she was capable of.
Put yourself in a new role or take on a new opportunity.
You can change your narrative by getting involved in projects that expand how people see you and widen your sphere of influence. I once coached a young careerist at a financial services firm who was stuck in an accounting slot. He wanted to be more involved in deal making, but didn’t know how. So he volunteered for an ad-hoc team and took on an analyst role. He is now known as the guy who can figure things out.
Find a mentor to sponsor you.
Shifting your story in your immediate circle can be difficult. But getting the recommendation of someone who is respected can allow you to step into a new space with different people, allowing the new version of yourself to shine. Their stamp of approval can make all the difference.
Once you know how you want your story to change, think about who has the attributes and expertise that you want to showcase in yourself and seek them out. Early in my strategic consulting career I was known more for my work with strategy teams than someone who could work on competitive strategy itself. I asked a founder in the Competitive Intelligence field to take me under his wing. At conferences he introduced me as his associate and had me work with him on client accounts. Two years later I had my own clients, working in both team building and strategic capacities.
Develop patience—or make a move.
Be aware that changing how people see you at work won’t happen overnight. Some may rely on you playing a certain role and won’t readily welcome a new version of you. Your change might force them to change, too.
And sometimes it’s easier to change your narrative with a fresh start. Transitioning to a new company allows you to define your story from the beginning.
But remember, your past performance doesn’t have to dictate your work life forever. You can rewrite your narrative a little bit every day—and soon your colleagues will discover the best, truest version of yourself.