By Demir Mustafa, 2019

‘Reputation’ – a word commonly used and fairly well understood, at least superficially. But, rarely is this critical concept given sufficient attention by those looking for self-improvement. The idea of reputation is applicable to and important for everyone. It can seem fairly innocuous but when you think about it properly, it can be quite terrifying to see its omnipotence.

Consider that reputation:

  • Applies to all aspects of life – your reputation can be framed from a social perspective or a workplace perspective.
  • Exists virtually since birth – even a baby or child can have a reputation for being naughty or well-behaved.
  • Is elusive and fragile – whilst it can change, change in the right direction is not easy –  it can take a life time to build and only a moment to destroy.
  • Can subsist long after you’re even gone – a grim thought, but we often comment on the reputation of those that have passed.
  • Can mutate, spread like a virus and infect strangers along the way – people that have never met you may already hold a certain view of you based on what others have said.
  • Can massively impact success and happiness in your life – both in terms of the quality of your relationships with friends, family, partners, and in your career.

Convinced that it might be worth ten minutes of your time to explore this further?

The purpose of this article is to get everyone to examine your own reputation more purposefully and thoughtfully. This is with a view to forming an assessment of your own potential development areas and putting an action plan into place to actually realisea benefit. All too often we read something, think to ourselves “oh that’s interesting and useful” and then subsequently proceed to forget it minutes later. The hope is that the following will give you clear and tangible steps to form a plan which can be executed long after reading this.

Your reputation is defined as the opinions or beliefs generally held by a group of people about you. The operative statement here is “opinions or beliefs”; the concept of reputation is wholly founded on perception. This of course means that perception may not be based on reality. At this juncture it’s probably coming to the front of your consciousness that the reputation you’ve acquired may not be a true reflection of who or what you really are.

You may say to yourself “I know I’m smart/reliable/[insert positive adjective here], so does this really matter?” We’re all familiar with the clichés and endless inspirational quotes that get posted on social media which go something along the lines of “be who you are and don’t worry about what others think” or “ignore the ignorant – only you know the true you and that’s the only opinion that matters”. Now we have to be extremelycareful here and this type of advice has to be taken in context and with a generous pinch of salt. Such statements should never be used carte blanche to do whatever you want, whenever you want without acknowledgement of consequence or fear of repercussions.  

When considering such statements, the way one should interpret the advice is to say to yourself:

  • Yes – I should be confident! Confidence is a massive part of training in self-development and should be progressed with full force.
  • Yes – I should have thick skin and won’t be easily influenced or manipulated! Whoever you are, and however good you are, you will always receive criticism and negativity in life. If you let these things easily, needlessly or wrongly influence your behaviour then you’re in dangerous territory.  
  • Yes – I’m not going to lose my sense of self! I know who I am and I’m happy with that. Sense of self is a very important concept and represents a very solid and stable foundation in your life. Don’t let people topple the building in your mind.

Having said all of this, there are ways in which you definitely should care, should take notice and should allow yourself to be influenced. Reality check: what people think of you can and does matter in certain contexts.  

For example, would you be content if:

  • Your closest friends consider you to be deceitful or unreliable (and so avoid your company);
  • Your partner thinks of you as unreasonable, overly aggressive or weak (and so compromises your relationship);
  • Your family views you as uncaring or thinks of you as an underachiever (leaving you with feelings of guilt);
  • Your manager at work perceives you to be not be effective or skilled (and could therefore seek to terminate your employment or not consider you for promotions);
  • Your staff at work (if you’re in a leadership position) believe you don’t give clear guidance on your expectations of them or have the perception that you claim credit for their work without adequately acknowledging their work to their peers or your management (and so could affect your chances for promotion – if you can’t handle your current team then how can you handle a bigger one?);
  • A future employer you’re interviewing with thinks you may not be the right because they’ve heard from others (it’s a small world!) that you’re not a finisher and lack the focus to see work through.

Worst still, what if these things were actually true about you. Forget about perceptions, you’d surely want to rectify the reality at the very least. There are many more negative ramifications of not having the full confidence or favour of these groups of people. We’re only scratching the surface here to give you a flavour of far-reaching this can be and get you thinking about your own situation.

In summary, your confidence should never be assailed, but you should be prepared to actively manage and seek to change the negative aspects of your reputation where those negative aspects are:

  • Based on truth and do reflect reality or;
  • Do not reflect reality but the perceptions are held by important people in your life (as listed above).

It is in this way that those inspirational references are not applicable.       

So how do you improve your reputation? Enter personal branding: It relates to an initiative in self-development undertaken by an individual looking to actively manage other’s perception of himself or herself. In short: personal branding is reputation management. Is it too late to start personal branding now? There’s a (possibly Chinese) proverb that says the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is today. If you haven’t actively engaged in personal branding already then you can begin now. The sooner the better, but it’s never too late.

Getting down to brass tacks these are the 5 steps to executing positive and sustainable change.

STEP 1: Establish what your reputation is now

Approach the relevant focus group you’re interested in exploring – friends, partners, family for your social life or employers, colleagues, direct reports in your corporate life. Canvass opinion and find out what they think of you and ask them to list your three best qualities (it’s not all about the negatives!) and your three worst. Ask a decent sample of people to avoid spurious and isolated views from impacting your analysis. Obviously in a corporate setting you phrase things differently and adopt more appropriate vernacular like requesting informal “performance feedback” and asking for “areas of development” rather than your “worst qualities”. Once you have this map this to your own view of yourself. You may find the feedback to be unsurprising or maybe quite shocking and unexpected. Take a moment for self-reflection and process what you’ve learned. Make sure you’re looking at the positives too.


STEP 2: Assess what you want your reputation to be going forward

OK so quick logic check: If a group’s perception equals the reality equals the view you want people to have of you then you’re fine and don’t need to do anything else. In that case you’ve achieved your objective already and (perhaps unwittingly) have been running an effective personal branding campaign. However, it’s likely that you’ll have some areas you do want to focus on and therefore should read on. So what do you want your reputation to be? Not as easy a question as you may think and even the seemingly positive feedback you’ve received may not be what you want others to think about you. Depending on your objective you may have different aspirations. For example, a colleague may have listed a positive quality as “Fantastic at getting involved in the detail and helping drive results” – which is great feedback. But when going for promotion to be a manager you’d need to have different and even opposite feedback along the lines of “great as seeing the big picturewithout needing to get swamped in the detail” or “brilliant at guidingpeople and teams to achieve results”. If you’re not clear on what you want your reputation to be, then take a look at the MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) grid below. The idea is to answer questions about your values, views and preferences which are then used to determine which personality box you best align (with a 4-digit code). This is by no means a precise test and there are many others available including Big Five and Hogan. Now, you don’t need to do actually take the test but instead use this as some inspiration and think about what box you want to be in. Then you can start step 3 to plan how to get there. 

Tip: If you’re in the corporate world you should be (or aim to be) in the bottom row or last column; the other nine boxes are career-killers.


Extraversion (E), Intuition (N), Thinking (T), Judgment (J), Introversion (I), Sensing (S), Feeling (F), Perception (P) 

STEP 3: Design a change action plan execute it

This step covers listing the specificperceptions you want to change and details howto go about changing them. This is of course personal and it would be too difficult to try and cover every possibility off here. The key is to understand why these perceptions exist and how they came about in the first place. This will help you come up with very specific actions on how to remedy the problem. Below are some non-exhaustive examples of change plans for some commonly identified negative perceptions:

  • “Unreliable”: If this perception exists because you attend meetings or appointments late, or not coming to work on time, then change that. Ever had the situation in a group of friends where you agree to meet at 7pm but there’s one person in the group you have to lie to say you’re meeting at 6.30pm because you’ll know they’ll be late? Are you that person? Perhaps it’s because you promise to do things by a deadline but rarely deliver them by that time. No one’s expecting you to be Superman or Wonder Woman and the reality of life is that sometimes the things you’ve committed to doing are no longer viable – and that’s ok. However, improved and timely notice of issues you’ve encountered keep your stakeholders informed and they’ll understand and appreciate your communication skills.
  • “Inefficient”: Ok, this one is a common workplace criticism. Why? Is it true? If so, take a time management course and learn how to prioritise. If you believe it’s not true then get to the root of the perception and why it exists. Do you take a long time to do a certain recurring task which is complicated but you’re manager is under the misapprehension that it’s very easy and therefore the amount of time you take is unwarranted? Then you need to COMMUNICATE this. Or do you perhaps spend a long time getting things “just perfect” before you send them out? Admittedly I’ve been guilty of this before. “I’d rather submit nothing than an imperfect report!”. Only now can I see how truly naïve I was. Imagine your boss is waiting for a report to use in a meeting they’re about to walk into and you say “I haven’t done it because it’s not perfect and I don’t want you to have it until it is”, do you think you’re going to receive a handshake and be congratulated on your exacting standards? Of course not. Wake up and smell the P45. We live in the real world not a fairy tale – work that is 90% completed is better than no work at all. Always do as much as you can by the deadline and clearly highlight WHAT the deficiencies are in your work and WHY that happened. Again, communication and commercial realism; otherwise known as common sense.
  • “Not genuine” or “Not believable”: No. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an outright liar but do you exaggerate or embellish? Do have the habit of painting a perfect picture about your life or the status of a project? Did you know that pisses people off for a number of reasons? Apart from the fact that no one likes a show off in general, there’s a reason – it screams insincerity and therefore reduces trust. Interestingly, the human mind is a finely calibrated bullshit detector. We all live in this world and know that nothing can ever be perfect and we’re not interested in hearing or watching any story that is. Did you know that Hollywood script writers have a specific formula and algorithm for writing a film plot? To simplify and generalise it’s this: enter the story of the main character in a stable environment so the audience gets acquainted with the set-up of their life – then insert an external phenomenon to impact the main character (like an earthquake, death of a friend, break up etc) – finally, watch the remainder of the film where you watch the main character struggle to get back to the stable environment that existed before. Why? Apart from the fact that humans like to receive information in the form of a story rather than textbook style facts, we can only trust, like and subsequently root for a character that has faced adversity (how sadistic humans are!). The point is that instead of telling managers that a project is hunky-dory and there are no issues (you can smell the BS already I’m sure), a better, more appreciated, and more likeable story is likely to be the truth. For example, that you encountered difficulties, thought all hope was lost and was getting prepared to send out an email, then you received an off-chance phone call from another department that was able to help and resolve the problem and now you’re back on track – not completely out of the woods but definitely out of intensive care. Doesn’t that sound more interesting? Don’t you like and trust that story more? We like and trust someone that is realistic about problems and flaws, and when that person shares the story in a compelling way, we end up actually rooting for them and wanting to help them. There’s a fine line so don’t overdo it though, no one likes a whinger!
  • “Unclear” or “Unstructured”: Are your emails all over the place? I knew a guy that specialised in sending out cryptic emails at work – we never were quite sure if he did it on purpose. I do recall when receiving one from this particular guy, the rest of the team would be summoned to gather around the recipients computer so they could ‘decode’ it together and work out what the hell the guy was on about. Or maybe your emails completely lack structure making it hard to follow a coherent point? I recall one manager complaining to one of her people and saying “did you just vomit the contents of your brain onto an email and click send?” (you’ll notice I’ve learnt this lesson well and always use steps, headings and bullet point lists!). The complaint could be about not being sufficiently organised in terms of meetings, planning and so on. These were just some examples.

(Incidentally, you may have noticed the remedy of ‘communication’ as a recurrent theme throughout).


STEP 4: Execute that plan and assess effectiveness

Start executing that plan. Sounds simple but you obviously have to stick at it and keep up any changes you make and beware of falling back into your old ways. Also be patient; some perceptions can be adjusted quicker than others so don’t be overly disheartened if it’s taking time. Be conscious of your environment during this exercise and see if people notice a difference.


STEP 5: Repeat steps 1-4 periodically

Personal branding is a marketing exercise that is continuousin nature. Think to any company selling its product with television adverts. For a given product, do you ever see the exact same advert airing for years on end? Rarely. The point is these things are dynamic and constantly shifting and so you should be too in your approach. It’s advisable to try and repeat this exercise as a health check in the future, especially if your desired perception by others changes from the first time you did this. 


Based on step 3, some readers may feel this guide is disingenuous and perhaps tries to wrap too many fundamental development points under the guise of reputation, when the underlying problems are more extensive and need far more attention. That may be the case and it depends on how cosmetic the problem is: if you have a long list of negative perceptions under step 3 and/or those perceptions are based in reality such that they constitute real shortcomings that have an impact on you, then you may need to get some corporate coaching to deal with those specifically. 

As with many things, nothing stated here is revolutionary nor overly complex. Most readers will agree this could all be labelled as common sense. However, without any action common sense is senseless and serves no value. Any investment in yourself always pays the best dividends - good luck in your venture to take action and grow.