“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt
Client Jonathan Asks: Several of my co-workers like to spread stories without checking to make sure they are true. Recently, someone shared an inaccurate and favorable story about me. What can I do to mitigate the damage?
Coach Joel Answers: Everyone is susceptible to gossip stories at work. But what if the stories are about you? And, even more disturbing, what if they are erroneous and could harm your reputation? Chances are, this won’t happen to you. But, if it does, it’s important to take action.
Once unfavorable stories get created they often get cemented in as a permanent perspective of who you are. This perception becomes their reality and everything else you do reinforces how others see you.
You can have 50 examples of trustworthiness and one false representation and this one malicious example undermines everything else.
During your constant interactions at work it’s possible that things you do might get misinterpreted in a way that is not accurate.
For example, you might be seen as unreliable because you didn’t get something done ontime or be viewed as a loose cannon because you speak up and say things at client meetings that are not appropriate. Some of these stories might be true, but often they aren’t reflective of who you really are at work. The problem is one or two negative stories can cement a perception of you that is actually inaccurate.
Here is a seven-step process to help you deal with workplace gossip and change negative misperceptions into positive (or neutral) ones:
Step 1: Gather information about the unfavorable story.
Without getting emotional or defensive gather as much information as you can about the unfavorable story. This fact-gathering stage is key. You don’t want to fly off the handle, confront someone and make matters even worse.
Step 2: Dispel the unfavorable story.
Go to the source of the story – the person who believes or is communicating the misperception – and explain your situation. Discuss your perspective and what you felt actually happened. Provide enough information so the person understands exactly the truth from your perspective. You could say, “Hi, Carla. I hear you may have some concerns about what I said at the client meeting. Could you tell me about them?” And then, after hearing the other person out, provide your perspective of why you spoke out like you did.
Step 3: Ask about other misperceived stories.
Ask the person if they have any other stories that they would like to share. When you hear the new stories, explain what actually happened versus what was perceived. Provide greater understanding of how these stories could have been misinterpreted.
Step 4: Take responsibility for what you did.
Even though you may not agree with the misperception, you most likely can find some things that you can be accountable for. Show that you have learned a lesson and what you take from this situation. Come up with some examples of what you’ll do differently based on what you have learned.
Step 5: Share favorable stories.
When a person observes something unfavorable, this image gets stuck in their mind. Counter the negative perception by coming up with ways and examples of how you haven’t been that which they think you are. If they think you are untrustworthy, come up with three or four stories illustrating your trustworthiness. These other stories help balance out a one-sided and limited perspective.
Step 6: Ask the person to give you another chance.
Explain how you don’t want to be stuck in their view of something that happened in the past. You sincerely desire to be given another chance to prove yourself. It’s not fair for you to be punished by something that happened only once or it occurred years ago. Get the person to take a risk on you and let you try again. The risk is minimal with tremendous potential upside.
Step 7: Thank the person for their honesty and willingness to help you.
This is one of the best ways to enhance your reputation and clear up any misunderstandings.
Since your career advancement depends on other people’s perceptions of you, it’s important to take action quickly when negative stories about you surface. Get valuable feedback about the way you are perceived at work by completing the perception evaluation here. Read Joel’s book Difficult Conversations: Practical Tactics for Crucial Communication for in-depth advice on how to handle a variety of challenging situations.