137 - Managing how people see you at work


career design

Setting your narrative and course-correcting

👋Hi, I’m Satyajit. Welcome to my newsletter that picks apart the messiness of decision-making for managers, execs, and builders.

Recently, I put out a playbook for middle managers. I’m excited to see readers use it and adapt it to their own ends, like this one:

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This week is a deep dive into perception management…

Finding out how people see you at work and course-correcting

You’re a seasoned manager. Over the years, you’ve developed a good idea of how you’re perceived at work. But your company has gone remote and the modalities for communication and management are no longer the same as in in-person era.

If you wanted to understand how your team perceived you and your communication with them, a good place to start would be an email audit. Emails encompass both one-to-one and one-to-many communication scenarios. They’re regular, recurring, and revealing. Most ignore this medium as a means to manage perception.

If you wanted to audit the quality of your email communication with the intention of improving it, which is a better question to ask your co-workers:

1️⃣On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate my email communication?


2️⃣If your least favorite food in the world leaves you feeling disgusted and is a 1 and your most favorite food leaves you delighted and is a 10, where on that disgusted-delighted scale of 1 to 10 would you put my email communication?

Here are two things to understand about your question:

👉The fact that you’re asking your team (and/or colleagues) for feedback is a sign that you want to get better. So, _give yourself credit _if you have sought feedback or are thinking of it. The first hill is the hardest.

👉Climbing the first hill is necessary but not sufficient to climb the mountain range. After you’ve made yourself vulnerable, you’ll see that others may still find it hard to open up (you rank higher; they’re nice; you’ve a formidable reputation). The way to get past your reports’ and coworkers’ defenses is by making it easy for them. _You do that by asking them about what they feel, not what they think they prefer. _

💡What we feel is real to us. Emotions control behavior more than any promises for the future.

The better question to ask, therefore, if you want the truth from people would be Question 1️⃣.

So far so good. Email communication feeds part of your work image. There are other aspects of how people see you. Here are a couple more questions that can be revealing for your perception assessment exercise:

Using authority:

✔How would you rate the way I pull rank if 1 was sandpaper and 10 was butter? (as opposed to ‘Do you think I pull rank?’)

Telling the world how smart you are:

✔How loudly am I prone to tooting my own horn at work if 1 is a meditation retreat and 10 is a rock concert? (instead of ‘Tell me honestly if you believe I blow my own trumpet’)

🔓I picked this line of questioning from Daniel Kahneman, a name subscribers of this newsletter are all too familiar with. In an interview last year, he spoke about how hard it is for people to make judgments of probability (‘how likely…). Demand for a _judgment of intensity _instead and you may find more accurate answers. He reckoned questions that call for a judgment on an intensity scale could be silly and therefore more effective. Kahneman’s example: ‘… how tall a building in New York would have to be to be as tall as that man is intelligent?’

How would you frame _your _silly questions? Take a shot at it in the comments.

With that, we move on to feeding or creating a perception of you at work.

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Creating your own narrative: making your playbook in the first 60 days into a new role

Your perception of you is like a map that people use to navigate your territory. The more accurate the map, the better the navigation. Making small changes to that map is nothing but correcting the perception of you at work—the bigger the area covered in the map, the more it is necessary.

Perhaps a better way would be to not have to tweak things much because you’ve managed to include details about the scale and the right labels early on for anyone who cares to use your map.

Switching this cartographic example for a more real one…

Imagine you’re an external hire, brought in as the COO. All eyes are on you. You’ve come from a different industry, you’ve no friends in the setup. You believe the first few days have a huge effect on the rest of your stint. You want to send the right message.

You could either start shaking things up from the get go and let people interpret your actions in a context that serves them best. Or you could take a beat to set the right context and nudge people to judge your actions in that context.

One way of creating this context is by writing down and sharing your user manual. Imagine yourself to be a gadget. What’s the best way you work? What are the ways you do not or cannot operate? Write that down for others to read and understand your operating principles.

Here’s Tobias Lutke, co-founder and CEO of Shopify, sharing his thinking behind creating his user manual:

Essentially, it takes a long time for people to learn how to work with each other. So, I always look for ways to short circuit these kinds of process [sic] as much as I can. In this particular case, I just wrote out the things that people otherwise take a year to figure out about me. How I work, how I think. So that’s on our internal Wiki, and it’s under you know, vault…slash Tobi, although that’s an internal address, and everyone has their first meeting with me can figure out what’s probably a good thing to do, and what isn’t a good thing to do. I think it’s very, very helpful.

People high up—by definition, successful—often have very specific preferences. Sometimes these preferences are the product of a process of introspection. Others, however, unexposed to this unseen process, assume these preferences to be quirks, which leads to gossip and second-guessing and so on. A lot of energy is wasted and to no avail. A way to nip that in the bud is to open-source the manual of why you are who you are.

Back to the described situation. As the new COO, say, you start ripping apart PowerPoint presentations and you start rejecting big group meetings, what do you think your actions will be interpreted as? Maybe not all good.

But say you have put the word out that you prefer memos instead of PPTs because memos capture nuance in a way PPTs cannot, or that you avoid big group meetings because big groups to you mean people down the chain are not taking decisions or responsibility for their actions.

Imagine if you’ve done all of the above. Not only now do you reduce the risk of being misinterpreted, you’ve also given yourself a better chance to set the culture you want, at least in your close group of stakeholders.

Your feelings about PowerPoint and group meetings are good places to start in your user manual. As your comfort with designing your own manual increases, you could start including little details on your personality to allow people to read you right. For example, are you a literal person? Do you like things to be spelled out? (Few will claim to be good at reading between the lines and then be dumped on the organization’s trickiest people puzzles)

For example, you may have had the company of a loose-cannon colleague in your team that your friends in other teams are gobsmacked by. ‘How can this guy even exist?’ they ask.

Their shock grows in a lack of context. They only see the demeanor and, minus the context, their literal selves can’t believe the person can get away with their behavior.

Before we close this, I want to leave you with this absolutely fantastic perspective from Frank Slootman, the Silicon Valley operator who’s been airlifted into many organizations to considerable success. Asked about how he approaches his first 90 days in a new setup, he reveals:

_I go after cultural issues. People that are just egregious violators of … things that we all generally find normal and acceptable, we very quickly separate on behavior. Performance is something that we will give more time; behavior we won’t. And that’s because behavior is a choice, not a skill set. When you come in as a new leader, everybody’s watching not just what you’re doing but [also] what you’re not doing. So if you’re not moving on things that people, that everybody is seeing, your leadership brand is already in question because apparently you’re blind and apparently you’re hesitating or you’re tolerant of behavior that you shouldn’t be tolerant of. _

What would you like to change about how you’re seen at work? What is holding you back? Let me know about what would make you ready to take the plunge in.

And don’t forget to try the Middle Manager Playbook and share it with friends. It’s a labor of love and your support will be much appreciated.

Until next week…

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