Q. I received some feedback at work that I am sometimes perceived to be too harsh. I was told that I would be more effective as a manager if I was a bit softer with my people. I took the feedback to heart. I’ve been working hard to control my, admittedly, sometimes sharp tongue. Although I occasionally slip up, I’ve made real improvement. Unfortunately, I was told yesterday that people haven’t noticed any difference in my behavior. What can I do to let people know that I have changed?
A. Changing the way others see you is difficult—very difficult. Here’s why. People form opinions about you, fairly or unfairly. In your case, the opinion seems to be that you are harsh. Humans like to be right. Therefore, once an opinion is formed, we tend to look for evidence that supports our beliefs. Conversely, we tend to ignore behavior that contradicts our thinking. This is particularly true when the thing that contradicts our perception of someone is the absence of a bad behavior—a non-behavior.
Let’s say that you have historically uttered harsh words almost daily. Your coworkers have witnessed this behavior and based on this, they have formed opinions about you. You decide to make a change. Because you are working very hard, you go for a couple of days, even a week, without so much as one harsh word.
Then, you slip. You say something that you regret immediately, but it’s too late. You said something harsh. This reinforces the perception of those hearing it. It is highly unlikely that anyone will think, “That’s the first harsh thing I’ve heard you say in a few days.” Instead, people are much more likely to think, “Yep, just what I thought, harsh!” Even though you may have improved by 95%, the one slip will reinforce what people think of you. Perceptions will remain completely unchanged. This is why changing the way people see you is so difficult.
Changing the way you are perceived is, however, not an impossible task. The key is to get people to notice your improved behavior, something that is unlikely to happen without prompting. A technique that has worked well for us over the years is to ask the person whose opinion you want to change for help. In your case, you might go to a colleague and say, “I have received feedback that I am too harsh and I know it’s true. I’m trying to be less harsh, but changing is difficult. Would you be willing to help me?”
This request will almost always get a favorable response. Generally, people will ask, “What can I do to help?” Explain that you would like the person to pay close attention to your behavior and note every time you say something that could be perceived as harsh. Meet with this person frequently to get feedback on any times they have heard you be unduly harsh. Meet no less often than weekly.
After several weeks of only being able to identify a very limited number of times when you were harsh, the observer will begin to accept that you have changed. Over time, you can reduce the frequency of the feedback sessions. When you are convinced that the observer has accepted that you have changed, you can phase out the sessions altogether. This is the best way to get people to notice a non-behavior.
One caution, don’t start this process unless you are very serious about making a change. If you ask for feedback, but don’t make a change, you’ll only call attention to your bad behavior. You’ll make the situation worse.
Changing the perception that others have of you is hard work, but, with persistence, it’s doable. The process described above is the best one we have found for getting people to notice positive behavioral change.