Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, people at work are talking behind your back. Hopefully the talk is positive, but there’s also a good chance it isn’t. Either way you need to know. Your career may well depend on it.
Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about gossip or rumors here. No, I’m referring to exchanges that focus on objective, widely shared opinions about the way you conduct and carry yourself, both on the job, in your personal life – with a particular emphasis on how you interact with people.
Clearly, there are many reasons why people might talk about you, but there are three that I want to focus on. These three, based on my experience, generate most of the talk. See if any of them apply to you?
1. You’re No Where Near As Good As You Think You Are
Nothing upsets people more than an individual whose ego is bigger than their abilities; people who are so self-absorbed that they either can’t see their shortcomings, or worse, prefer to live in ignorant bliss, refusing to acknowledge them.
This lack of self-awareness causes a lot of problems for the people they work with, and real frustration for the people they work for. In the extreme, these people can make the workplace a living-hell. In most cases they just make things uncomfortable, often getting in the way of progress and real change because they’re always trying to protect themselves. For this reason, they tend to be roadblocks to change. As you might expect, talk around this issue can get pretty emotional.
2. You’re Much Better Than You Think You Are
People love to talk about wasted potential, especially if the individual who’s not living up to their potential is in a position to make a real difference, if they could just get their act together.
I’ve seen this situation many times over the years, especially when an organization is dealing with change and stress. To be successful in this environment everyone needs to step up their game; to be the best they can be, and when someone isn’t living up to their potential; isn’t pulling their weight, people get very frustrated with them. This frustration become fodder for discussion.
This is especially true when it comes to the issue of leadership. Why it is that everyone around an individual can easily see their potential to lead and influence, yet the person can’t see it for themselves? Unfortunately, it often takes a crisis of some kind, like being passed over for a promotion, or worse, dismissal, before they’re forced to deal with it. It would have been a lot easier if they had just listen to what people were saying to their face and behind their backs.
3. People Have High Expectations of You
I sincerely hope this is why people are talking about you. It means that you have a track record of making a difference and helping people. That’s the good news. The bad news is you’ve created the expectation that you can keep doing it, and for this reason people are watching you very closely.
The thing you need to appreciate once you’ve created this expectation level, is that people are watching your every move. They will react to your moods and emotions. They notice if you’re upset or frustrated, and they know when you’re having a lot of closed door meetings, that something is up.
As a leader in this situation you need to be acutely aware of this and you need to have ways of keeping your fingers on the pulse of your group, which is another way of saying you need to know what they’re talking about. No matter what you think or say, people’s perception is their reality. To keep everyone motivated and productive you need to know what their thinking.
I hope by now you’ve come to accept that people are talking about you behind your back, and I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s in your best interest to know what it is they’re saying. In essence it’s all about managing your reputation, or as many refer to it, your personal brand.
“Your personal brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon
If there is one thing I’d like you to take away from this post, it’s that managing and cultivating your personal brand, or your reputation, is critical to your career. This process starts with acknowledging that you already have a reputation and its having an impact on your career right now. For this reason, you need to know what it is as soon as possible, and if it’s not what you want it to be, make some changes.
To help you get the process started here are a few ways to find out what people are saying behind your back.
- Ask a couple of your work-friends to give you their opinion about how your viewed in the workplace. These should be people who know you well, are very comfortable with, and are confident will be honest with you. For example, they could be people you eat lunch with, have coffee with, or are part of a committee or team you’re on. This is a very safe approach and easy to get done.
- If you manage people and conduct reviews, at some point in the process ask them to give you a suggestion on one thing you could do to better. This suggestion will give you some insight into a weakness or shortcoming that you need to work on. This takes some confidence but can be very informative.
- Ask an independent third party who is totally outside your area or department for their thoughts. For example, have coffee with your receptionist, or someone in accounting. You’d be surprised by how much they really know about what’s going on and how people think.
- If you’re really serious, speak to your immediate supervisor or boss. This assumes of course that you don’t have regular performance reviews. The goal of this interchange is to ensure that how you see yourself is consistent with the way others see you, especially your boss.