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We all have good stories to tell about our fortes and foibles. You know, the one about the time you spilled coffee on the chief executive officer’s lap during your lunch interview and still got the job. Or when you serenaded a potential new hire on the phone and beat out a competitor’s offer through sheer humility and humor.
What about when your story gets away from you? When your boss, colleagues, or team create the story for you—and before you know it, a Frankenstein’s monster of a tale is loose, with your name on it?
Early in my professional life, I co-managed the construction of a small-scale hydroelectric plant on a pristine river in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. Charged with complying with environmental permits, I was eager to exercise my passion for minimizing the project’s impact. Several months into the job, however, a colleague divulged that I almost didn’t get the position. Our boss thought I wouldn’t agree to work up to my knees in mud in the project’s tunnel. My colleague persuaded him otherwise, thank goodness. But who on earth fed him that story? Did people really think I was a dainty princess, unwilling to explore a leadership opportunity at the core of our business just to keep my shoes clean?
It turns out that our firm’s receptionist had the boss’s ear—she was a longtime employee who had watched him expand the business. (This is not uncommon, even at the largest corporations, although then it might be the CEO’s executive assistant spinning the tale.) He asked her about her impression of me, the latest hire, and she told him. My story—and reputation—had been co-opted by someone who had judged me based on a polite phone conversation.
That early lesson taught me I couldn’t afford to let others characterize me, or my intentions, without my input.
Leaders, being in the spotlight, are particularly at risk. Team members often see only parts of projects. They can miss meetings, or work off-site. Ordinary scenarios can breed uncertainty (“What did he say?”), followed by speculation (“He seemed pretty unhappy with the project schedule.”) Before you know it, the team has created your story. “He’s going to make some big changes around here, even though the delays aren’t our fault.” In a heartbeat, you can go from being a motivating leader whose team gets the job done to a self-interested jerk willing to throw his team under the bus.
To maintain a firm grip on your stories and reputation, try the following:
At the beginning of every message, state your intentions. Not an agenda, but in your own words, relate your purpose in communicating: “I’m proud of this team for making the best of supplier delays.”
Frame requests so as to avoid speculation or negative interpretation. “While we didn’t cause the delays, the onus is on us to make up the lost days.”
Communicate early and often about your plan, what you are doing, and what you are going to do. Eliminate openings for others to speculate about your activities. “We’re going to form sub-teams to scrub every possible minute out of the production schedule and gain time where we can.”
Share progress. Even if your story gets away from you, results can trump gossip, at least in the short run. “We not only recouped our schedule losses, we delivered a day ahead of time.”
Rinse and repeat.
In the absence of information, people fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, what they fill in will often be negative because worst-case scenarios at least prepare them for action. As a leader, you need to own your stories, for your sake and for that of your team. By sharing expectations and communicating direction about how events should be interpreted, you not only manage your reputation, you make the workplace feel safe and predictable.