A reputation is a tricky thing

“Reputation is like a sort of armor, or a weapon you can brandish if need be.” – Kvothe

“Everyone knows a man’s reputation except the man himself.” – Sleat

In an online world that keeps a complete and indefinite history of all of our public (and many of our private) activities, including but not limited to employment history, ill-advised social media posts, traditional media articles, stuff posted by other people, etc., reputation management is a bit of a challenge.  Nevertheless, it remains as important as ever, and perhaps even more so than ever before.  Fortunately, one could make an argument that nowadays we as individuals have access to tools that can help us earn, craft, manage, and defend our reputations.  Let us examine these reputation-related activities.

Despite what Will Smith’s mother told him in a classic piece of music, we’re probably never too young to have a reputation.  Most of it is earned, some of it is assigned (fairly or unfairly), and it can be to our benefit or detriment.  Even a single element of that reputation can have positive or negative influence, in different situations.

There are many sayings about reputations, and I won’t repeat them, but it’s true that they’re built over time and can be lost in an instant.  Our reputations are earned far more through our actions than our words, and group intelligence has a habit of filtering outliers in favour of the habitual.  That means that if we’re lazy on 80% of our tasks, and only push ourselves occasionally, then our reputations are more likely to be of laziness than of achievement.  Tough perhaps, but fair.

It’s also worth considering, for a moment, that a single individual likely has many different reputations depending upon whom is asked.  I can think of reasons why this is a positive or a negative, but the important point is to acknowledge that it is.

We are what we act, so we must act professionally all the time.  Even if we’re only acting (in the “fake” sense) at the beginning, maybe we’ll cultivate habits and the attribute will become part of our characters.

I suppose the difference between earning and crafting a reputation is that crafting suggests some level of conscious effort on our part to create, rather than just living and letting a reputation develop more naturally.  And I’m not saying that critically; rather, I’m just making the point that there is a difference.

Early on The Kingkiller Chronicle (I try to find lessons in everything), the protagonist, Kvothe, states that “Reputation is like a sort of armor, or a weapon you can brandish if need be.” (p347 – The Name of the Wind)  In support of the former description, of a reputation being like armor, consider that someone with a reputation as being calm and collected can lash out or become animated and have the episode be dismissed as being “out of character”.  In this manner, the reputation has prevented any tarnish from appearing on the individual’s character.  Now, if the behavior is repeated, the reputation will shift.  I recognize the potential for contradiction to my previous statement about ignoring outliers, but in my opinion both statements can coexist in truth provided that we are incredibly selective about the frequency with which we deviate from the norm.

Looking at the latter description, a reputation as a weapon is a relatively common application, and can be applied both directly and indirectly to the benefit of multiple parties (e.g., “Don’t make me tell your father”, “If you continue this behavior, I will be forced to report you to the board”, “Remember what happened the last time you failed to deliver on time”).  Alternatively, consider the ultra-quiet and thoughtful individual who rarely speaks; when he or she finally does, people listen, and in a way that’s using the reputation as a weapon.

The key to effectiveness and preservation is control, and it is in our hands: “wield” a reputation too much, and the edge dulls; rely on it to deflect too many attacks, and cracks appear.

In The Kingkiller Chronicle, Kvothe recognizes at a young age the importance of carefully shaping and managing his own reputation and takes care to do so at every opportunity: “I had a great deal of time on my hands…I spent some time nurturing my budding reputation.”  (p347 – The Name of the Wind)

Tactically, Kvothe does this by letting some rumours spread uncorrected (“I let that story circulate uncorrected, as it was preferable to the embarrassing truth.”), creating some rumours himself, and generally by being quite extraordinary (this is the path I recommend).  Again, it will sound cheesy, but making excellence a habit is probably our best bet.

Unlike Kvothe, we have tools like LinkedIn to build and promote our own reputations and tout our own achievements, but the flipside is that our blunders can also get the same attention.

By the second book, Kvothe’s efforts were paying off: “By this point in my life, I’d earned myself a modest reputation.  No, that’s not entirely true.  It’s better to say that I had built myself a reputation.  I’d crafted it deliberately.  I’d cultivated it.”  (p722 – The Wise Man’s Fear)

“I’d earned myself a modest reputation.  No, that’s not entirely true.  It’s better to say that I had built myself a reputation.  I’d crafted it deliberately.  I’d cultivated it.” – Kvothe

In many circumstances, his reputation preceded him and he was able to use that to his advantage.

One delicious bit of irony about reputation was captured by a minor character in the series when he (Sleat) said, “Everyone knows a man’s reputation except the man himself.” (p222 – The Wise Man’s Fear).  (he would add, consistent with the previous content of this post, that “…some of us labor over our reputations.  I have built mine brick by brick.”)

And how true this is!  We never truly know our own reputation, but everyone else does.  The best we can do is to approximate an understanding by surrounding ourselves with trusted, honest friends, cultivating a relationship of openness, soliciting feedback, engaging in 360-degree surveys (and trusting that people don’t hold back), and so on.

Occasionally, we might get challenged and have to defend our reputations (Lessons from the Top devotes several chapters to this).  The exact strategy depends on the scenario, but a consistent history isn’t a bad foundation on which to mount a defence.

Reputations are not limited to people: organizations (and I firmly maintain that corporations are not people) also stand to gain or lose, in different scenarios, from their own reputations; my own soccer club was able to attract top talent with great character by virtue of our reputation in the local leagues (see #6); Google has a reputation that is a beacon to many people; other companies have a stink that drives folks away like a toxic miasma.

Products and brands also develop reputations, and many a company has struggled over years or decades, and dumped millions of dollars, in trying to convince customers to change their minds…but minds can be stubborn things when you want them to change, and unfortunately malleable when you’d prefer the status quo.

Personally, I believe that all the tools in the world and all the careful management or manipulation, are distantly behind a genuine history of behaviour when it comes to contributing to our reputations.  Every interaction we have, positive or negative, and every action we take, effective or not, contributes to others’ perception of us, and as we know already from our studies of marketing, “There is no objective reality.  All that exists in the world of marketing are perceptions in the minds…The perception is the reality.

Whether I agree with it or not, my reputation is what other people think of me.  All I can do is try to provide them with positive content.

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Posted in Advertising, Careers, Everything, Marketing

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