Tips to improve your reputation in the workplace

30 May 2019

Michelle Gibbings

Michelle is a workplace expert and author of three books. Her latest book is 'Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one’. For more information, click here.

Owning your reputation means being clear on your values and what you stand for.

Everyone has a reputation, which is essentially what they are known for. The challenge is that what you want to be known for, and what you are known for, can differ.

If there’s a mismatch, you’ll find that your reputation hinders your career and the progress you make in life.

Core to your reputation is your integrity.

Integrity matters

 A person with integrity lives their life according to moral and ethical principles. At a practical level, your integrity is about what you say and do every day, the decisions you make and how you treat people.

People bristle when they hear that their integrity has been called into question. For most people, their integrity is valued, and not something they want to lose. However, your integrity can become tarnished and eroded slowly, over time, if you’re not careful.

Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioural economics, talks about the fact that everyone lies a little bit.

According to Dan Ariely: “We like to believe that a few bad apples spoil the virtuous bunch. But research shows that everyone cheats a little – right up to the point where they lose their sense of integrity.”

Know what influences you 

Ask yourself:

  • How am I showing up every day?
  • Is my behaviour congruent, consistent and in line with my values?

We all like to think of ourselves in a positive light – that is, as a ‘good person’. We hold this image; using it as a reference point when we make decisions and constructing an internal dialogue to maintain it.

However, our behaviour is influenced by a whole raft of factors, which means we may not be as good as we think we are. There are two key elements at play:

  1. Espoused values versus values in use; and
  2. Moral licensing.

In psychology, the terms ‘espoused values’ and ‘values in use’ are used. These terms were coined by Argyris and Schon in 1974.

Your ‘espoused values’ are the values you talk about. You might say you value honesty. Yet, if you are given an honest answer to a question, such as ‘Have I put on weight?’, and the answer is ‘yes’, you may not be happy with the response.

Your response is your ‘values in use’. Your values in use are the values that you use every day when you do things. For example, you might say you value the environment but not recycle or do anything to improve the planet’s health.

In many aspects of life, there can be a gap between the two.

Your behavioural choices get even trickier when you realise that when you do something good, which usually makes you feel good about yourself, it then (oddly) gives you permission to be not so good later.

For example, you may have had a highly productive morning and so you decide to cruise through the afternoon, or because you went to the gym in the morning you give yourself permission to have that piece of cake.

This ‘moral licensing’ means that a good deed at one part of the day, which boasts your image of yourself, then creates the permission to do something that isn’t good later in the day.

Think of it like a series of checks and balances. Your brain has an image of yourself and wants to maintain that image, and so it keeps score of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours. You earn credits for good behaviours and debits for not so good behaviours, with the eventual aim of balancing the scales.

Researchers at Northwestern University found that “…priming people with positive and negative traits strongly affected moral behaviour”. This led to people either behaving less morally (in the case of positive traits) or more morally (in the case of negative traits).

Often this happens subconsciously and because we have a strong urge to maintain an image of ourselves that is good, we rewrite the narrative that accompanies behaviour that isn’t congruent with who we think we are (or want to be).

Own your reputation

It’s therefore critical to actively seek to own your reputation. When you do this, you:

  • Actively seek to understand how others see you, and how you see yourself;
  • Identify where there are gaps between your desired reputation and your actual reputation;
  • Consciously construct a reputation that is positively and sustainably developed;
  • Realise that maintaining a positive and progressive reputation requires work – daily; and
  • Don’t take your reputation for granted.

This means you need to be clear on your values and what you stand for. Ideally, write them down and keep them visible. It also helps to have a trusted sounding board (someone who will challenge you) with who you can talk issues through. And then, when you are faced with a behavioural dilemma, ask yourself, ‘Am I the kind of person who….(insert behaviour)?’, and see what the answer will be.

Every day, Benjamin Franklin asked himself two questions: In the morning – “What good shall I do today?” and in the evening – “What good have I done today?”.

If you are seeking to uplift your reputation, that’s a great daily practice.