No one likes to feel that they aren’t being seen accurately or positively in terms of their abilities, intentions or motivations. So how can you rescue a relationship that has soured or stalled at work — and change your colleague’s mind about you?
It isn’t always easy to change people’s minds. The human brain tends to interpret and recall information in a way that confirms your existing belief — and less time considering other points of view. However, the good news is that it can be done, although it takes time, sustained effort, and awareness to tip the scales back in your favour — or at least take them to neutral again.
Ultimately, changing someone’s mind about you is about relationship management. It will depend on a few elements, such as the hierarchy and stage of your relationship. Working on someone’s perception if you have just met and got off to a shaky start takes a slightly different strategy to someone responding to you within the framework of a longer-term relationship, for example.
Your approach will also depend on whether their negative perception is about you personally, or about your capabilities — and whether it is actively impacting on your career or just creating an uncomfortable feeling that things aren’t running as smoothly as they could. Whatever the scenario playing out for you right now, there are tried and tested ways that you can help create new or improved perceptions in the mind of someone you’re trying to influence.
1. PLAYING DETECTIVE
Finding out as much as possible about what may be informing the person’s opinion or perception of you (or what you assume it to be) is where it all starts. After all, it’s hard to change someone’s opinion if you don’t know what it is.
While conducting research for her book, Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage, Laura Huang interviewed 60 leaders who were trying to convince business colleagues to change their minds. She found the most successful were those who diagnosed the root of the belief before trying to persuade. The question they all started with was, ‘What’s driving my detractor’s resistance?’ — pinpointing which aspects of their own behaviour or conversation elicited the most pushback and strongest emotional reactions.
Reflecting on the information and signals you’ve received from others in this way — and if necessary digging for more information through some judicious questions — will help you to set your roadmap for changing things, whether through a direct approach, or an indirect one if more appropriate.
2. TO ACT OR NOT TO ACT?
‘Perception is important if you want to move up in an organisation’, says Roberta Matuson, author of Can We Talk? Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work. ‘You have to work really hard and manage those relationships.’ All of which means knowing the most strategic and effective time and way to approach the problem. She notes that if you believe that someone’s opinion is deliberately harming your career then you should not be afraid to confront them in an enquiring and thorough manner.
If their opinion is a result of information they have heard or been told, then direct communication to highlight the issue is also important and it will also give you your chance to present your side of the story to clear up any misunderstandings.
However, if your dynamic is one where direct challenge might be inappropriate, or where the other’s negative perception of you is largely unconscious, you might be better off working ‘behind the scenes’ to raise your status within the relationship.
3. STEP INTO THEIR SHOES
To change someone’s mind about you, you need to understand how they see the world, and how you fit into it, says Steve Willis, executive coach at Crucial Learning. He suggests spending as much time as possible in ‘listening mode’ around them as you can, and specifically for details around their assumptions of you.
If you feel someone does not see your ability or potential clearly, then arranging a meeting and asking incisive questions can help you understand their internal story about you and where exactly that has come from. By asking for specificity around times, situations and circumstances (for example, where they see you doing/not doing certain things or exhibiting certain behaviours), you can then identify what you can do differently in those moments.
Using specificity can also be helpful in challenging any unconscious biases they might have, slowing down their reasoning process and allowing them to come to a new conclusion about you themselves, rather than trying to purely persuade from outside.
4. ACTIONS (OR SYMBOLS) SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS
Once we know what’s beneath the issue involving someone’s opinion of us, we need to strategically send some new messages that we hope will move the dial on those opinions. This is where a little known sociological idea called symbolic interactionism can weave a little magic.
‘A symbolic action is any action you take where the other people who are watching will walk away having concluded what you care about, what your priorities are and even what you value’. Your actions are basically the ‘symbols’ or representations of your character, values and priorities — as Willis notes, they are ‘everything you do, or don’t do, when you show up, if you show up, what you say and what you don’t say’.
To get the ball rolling, ask yourself what you could do that would demonstrate that you are in fact the very opposite of what someone thinks of you. The fundamental premise is that if you want someone’s perception to change of you, you have to demonstrate this change in your actions. For example, if you believe they see you as overbearing then make noticeable space for other people in meetings. If they don’t think of you as a proactive leader, then go out of your way to volunteer to lead projects. Consistency is the key to making this message stick, but perhaps most important of all is authenticity — this approach will only work if you really truly are that very thing you’re trying to project.
5. UNRAVEL THE FIRST IMPRESSION
A first impression can be hard to undo, says Dr. Theresa DiDonato, Professor of Psychology at Loyola University Maryland. ‘Once formed, they create people’s future expectations, and these expectations shape subsequent interactions,’ she says.
What people think of us can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making us behave in ways aligned with someone’s first impression of us. However, a shaky start can be mitigated. ‘Negative first impressions can be moved if new information undercuts the initial evaluation, not only offering positive impression information but, critically, offering new explanations for what was previously interpreted as evidence for a negative judgment,’ notes DiDonato.
This could include reaching out to someone to let them know you were nervous and acknowledge you made a mistake, or finding a way to reconnect and demonstrate more of your character after a poor interview, for example.
6. BE PATIENT: THESE THINGS TAKE TIME
Above all, avoid trying to overcompensate or making too much of an effort to change someone else’s perception, says communications consultant and author of Choose Your Story, Change Your Life Kindra Hall. ‘While this is only natural, it will likely make things worse,’ she says. If you are trying to combat a poor first impression then the weight of evidence will eventually sway them, she say. ‘When you bring your authentic self to work and show your colleagues that you are competent, a team player and that they can rely on you, the multiple interactions they have with you every day will eventually override that one moment they met you.’
In more entrenched situations and relationships, it may be that you have to focus on a particular area of your behaviour or another’s perception of you to shift the dial over time. For Hall, though, the answer in all situations is not to try to do too much, too soon.