Question: Changing my team's perception of my behavior

At the request of my manager (and CEO) of the company I engaged a coach about 4 months back.

Going in, my main need was to become a "more inclusive manager". And I think, we have made good progress in terms of active listening, being open to new ideas, having better 1-on-1 relationships, etc.

However, I think feedback to my boss from my team (which he is in the habit of getting for all his Direct Reports), still references my shortcomings from the past.

Is that normal? Is there something I can do about it?

10 Expert Insights

Ah yes, you have discovered what has already been pointed out – it is harder to change perceptions than to change behavior, and until you have changed perceptions, you are not viewed as a more effective leader.

The higher you are in an organization, the bigger the problem because people like to tell stories about executives. If someone hears a story today about something you did 3 years ago, it’s just as though it happened today.

The problem is that you get stereotyped with a particular bad behavior. Even if you make significant improvement, it is likely that you will demonstrate your old behavior again (assuming you are human.) When that happens, it will reinforce people’s stereotype of you & they will think you have never changed.

We teach our coaching clients a follow up process that is very effective in changing perceptions. For you, it might sound like this:

Every month or so, you go to important stakeholders and say; “I am trying to become even more effective at being an inclusive manager – by being better at active listening, being open to new ideas, having better 1-on-1 relationships. Do you have any suggestions for me going forward?” When they respond, listen, say thank you, and avoid being defensive. The next month when you ask, they may say they have not noticed anything. The next month, the same thing. Then when you do act human & screw up 6 months later, they may say; “You just messed up last week, but you have gotten a lot better.” Say thank you & give them credit for helping you change.

It is normal.  Sadly, we're not as objective noticing things as we'd like to think we are, so once we have a hypothesis formed, we tend to filter in data that supports it and filter out data that doesn't.  Especially around stuff that's emotionally problematic in some way.  "Leaving the toilet seat down" is a good real-life example of that for most people.  (If you're the female partner of someone who didn't do that, you'll only tend to notice times it's up for quite a while after the behavior's substantially shifted.  If you're the male, you'll think you're leaving it down ALL of the time, when you're not.)

So one thing to do about it: grin and bear it, knowing that it's normal...and you do the same.  Reality will catch up with perception; it just takes a while.

You might be able to accelerate things catching up, though.  It's hard to tell from your example, but is your boss careful to find out the time for which people are referencing shortcomings?  He should be.  Are there other ways to make the quality of the data still better?

Also, is your team behind you on this?  If you can find a way to enlist them in getting good data on what you're doing well as well as where you need to improve, that will help reset the focus.  

And if you're not, how open and inclusive are you being, anyway?  :)

I reiterate the advice of my colleagues above.  Having individual conversations with your direct reports will provide you great insight - an opportunity for them to share with you what they are seeing and an opportunity for you to share with them what you are learning as you develop these skills.

Another thought -

When you began your coaching relationship, did you participate in a multi-rater assessment?  If so, I would ask your coach if you could retake the assessment.  Best timing is probably six months after your coaching sessions began.  If your direct reports are seeing progress, that data should come out on the re-assessment. And sharing the objective findings of your report with your boss should help to modify the perception, if change has occurred.

If you have not taken a multi-rater assessment as of yet, I highly recommend Center for Creative Leadership's Benchmarks

It is a very thorough assessment targeted toward mid- to upper-level managers.  It focuses on the observable behaviors of 16 competencies for leadership success and five possible career derailers.  This tool will really provide you with a window into your leadership behaviors and the perceptions of those around you.

Best of luck to you!  I hope you have great success in turning this around.


Your experience reinforces the reality that when one holds a perception of another... one that could be based on just a first impression or several, it is not automatic or even easy to alter that perception.  It just can take time.

Although you don't say, I would imagine that it might be just some of the direct reports who are holding on to their past experiences. And thus, you will potentially gain more by having one-on-ones with the individual team members rather than approaching them as a group.  

Your purpose would be to let them know of your personal goals as a manager and that you have been making an effort to be more inclusive and open to input of others.  What you would like from them is to identify changes that they have seen or experienced that indicate success on your part.  In addition you would encourage them to identify additional things that you could do in working with that individual that would improve the relationship that exists between you.

There is only so much that you can do 'across the board' in managing a team or group.  Beyond that it becomes individualized.  As a leader your goal is to achieve through the team what you need to happen to be successful.  Catering somewhat to individual issues or needs is well worth the effort, if it enhances the success you... and thus the company... achieves.

In using this suggested approach, those you manage might just come to see you as a strong leader in that you are willing to be vulnerable to their input rather than playing out your role as always right.

Your CEO is investing in your development; that's a great thing. You appear to be receiving the coaching with a good attitude - also a great thing. It may be that your team is seeing progress, but you are sensitive to anything short of rave reviews. Or they may not be seeing the progress that you are seeing.

It is not at all uncommon for a considerable gap to exist between managers' assessments of their own performance and their teams' assessments. A big step forward in leadership development is becoming more self aware. Your coach is probably already working with you on that. You would probably benefit, though, by working with your team to make it safe for them to be more honest and direct with you.

Subordinates are rarely honest and direct with their superiors because they fear the consequences. It may be that your team has had reason to fear candor in the past. If so, it will take considerable time and sincere effort on your part to remove that fear. If you are consistent in helping your team deal directly with you, if you make it easier for them to do so, and if your boss will discourage triangulation and also encourage them to deal directly with you, your team will probably do coaching for free.

Congratulations on the progress you have made! The things that you have listed, active listening, being open to new ideas, 1on 1 relationships (with your direct reports) are essential management skills.

Hopefully, those 1 on 1 relationships are feeling like a place your direct reports can be open with you. If that is the case, would it be possible for you to initiate conversations about how they are experiencing your new management style?  You would learn a lot while at the same time strengthening those relationships.

I would love to hear how it goes!

Employees will not give you credit for just "good progress". However, they will give you credit for a "radical transformation". You and your coach should work on grand and sincere transformations in the way that you view people in general, employees and how you manage them.

Challenge yourself to reinvent the way you look at things around you. Don't just meet your personal goals, over-shoot them. If you do not change your views and interactions with others outside of work, you will never make big changes in how you act at work. Target personal changes outside of work that you will naturally bring with you to the job each day that will get noticed.

Never make excuses. Excuses never helped anyone to break the barriers to greatness. Make realistic plans to exceed perceptions and expectations. In the course of my past senior executive career, I have been exposed to 3 different waves of 360 degree feedback followed by 1 week of offsite coaching to meet and exceed those perception goals. There is nothing easy about what you are challenged to achieve. Just aim higher in what changes you are trying to achieve. Seek the personal benefits in the changes you seek and let that be your motivation to change.

I wish you could have joined me for my recent 1-week course I held titled: "Mind Mapping the Path to Success". I taught professionals how to apply my "Strategy for Success" to achieve the toughest business and personal goals with the help of Mind Mapping techniques.

There are a few coaching suggestions I can offer:

1. Remember that each of us judges what we do and say based on what we know our intentions are; those with whom we interact judge what we do and say based largely on their past experiences with us and their interpretation of the most recent interaction.  As a result, we have to clearly explain to other what our intentions are including in your case what you intend to work on from a personal skills perspective.

2. You need to ask your boss for critical help in 2 ways: a) when others continue to come to him with feedback about you or he goes to them to solicit feedback, ask him to understand that he is creating a reason for people not to be direct, candid and constructive in giving you feedback; b) he needs to ask them if they have had a feedback discussion with you and if their response is "no" he needs to direct them to you.

3. Your boss, peers and even the CEO also need to understand one important rule about feedback: when I choose not to provide direct feedback to another person, I must assume shared responsibility and I can no longer complain that there is no change in that person

4.  We too often use common words to describe behaviors that people often define in very different ways.  When you are told to be more inclusive, the organization owes you a description of what "inclusive" looks like, how it behaves and along with that description you need to have specific examples of situations in which you "were not inclusive" and an example of what inclusive behavior looks like from the perspective of those you interact with (and you can rest assured, their expectations will be different)

There's an old saying which more recently has been attributed to Warren Buffett: "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it."

You're going to have to have a lot of patience and one would hope that your CEO will have a  similar approach. It would help if he does hear good news and you may have to encourage this. Your problem, assuming you are making progress, with, or for that matter, without, the help of the coaching is at least in part a communication one and this may be something to discuss with your coach.

Your boss needs to hear good news and you may have to help that along.

First, I want to acknowledge you for engaging a coach to help you become a more inclusive manager. Did the coach interview your direct reports, peers and your boss to present to you how others see you. I am a coach and this is the first step I take so the client can become aware of how he is seen by the people around him.

Did a coach make a coaching agreement with you? Do you understand what kind of process will the coach use to move you along? What agreement did you and your boss make with the coach as to the changes that you need to make? Did your coach, when he interviewed individuals asked the same question of those he interviewed? Once he started coaching you did he ask questions to help you move along?

These are just a few things that are important in the coaching intervention.