Thursday, May 13, 2010

Coaching Lessons: How to Manage Your Reputation

If life coaching is an exercise in self-management, learning how to manage your reputation must be an essential part of the process.

It is also the most difficult part of the process. Compared to the relative simplicity of managing yourself and your relationships, the task of managing how others see you is daunting. As I am sure Tiger Woods would willingly attest.

For businesses, celebrities, and politicians reputation management falls within the purview of public relations.

Reputation involves how other people see you, how they think about you, what they say about you, and how or whether they interact with you.

Unless you have an advanced degree in mind control, you will find it devilishly difficult to control how other people see you. If you respect their freedom, you will discover that you cannot force them to see you in one or another way, but that you can only invite them to do so.

I would guess that the perils of reputation management are a principal reason why people are so interested in mind control. They are less concerned with making people do what they want them to do than in making them see them as they want to be seen.

As I was discussing a few days ago (link here), it does not take a lot to compromise your reputation. And once you have done so, it takes an extraordinary amount of work to set it right.

If you have developed a reputation as the go-to guy for a certain kind of project, and then, when a problem arises, you are nowhere to be found, your years of good work will become tainted by the fact that you were not there. Where everyone thought that they could always count on you, now they are thinking... maybe, not so much.

You may have had a very good reason for not being available, and your absence was involuntary-- i.e., you were in a coma-- it will likely be overlooked. But if you were unavailable because you went out without your cell phone or were caught up in a mid-afternoon tryst, then your reputation will stay compromised.

When you lose something of your reputation people are not concluding that you are fundamentally irresponsible, only that they have to think twice before trusting you again.

On the other hand, if you start making a habit of being absent or of being lazy or of being incompetent, then your reputation will change from sometimes unreliable to fundamentally irresponsible.

Even if you do not have extensive professional responsibilities, you still have a reputation. It might be for fairness, reliability, honesty, or temperance. In all cases reputation involves your good character, especially as you choose to exhibit it in public.

As many young people have discovered, when you expose too much of yourself on Facebook you lose the respect and damage your reputation. The same applies to women, who had out their sexual favors indiscriminately. Young men can develop reputations as players or users, thus, as inconstant lovers, but they only rarely suffer mental anguish for having had too much sexual experience.

I have always been hesitant to blame this all on the internet. While Facebook and other social media sites have given people more chances to be more exposed than is good for their reputations, social media are an instrument, not a cause.

In my view, the precepts laid down by the therapy culture have set the stage for this orgy of overexposure. If you have learned from respectable authorities that you should be open and honest with other people, and that you should express yourself freely regardless of how anyone else feels about it... then why would you not feel that oversharing was the right way to conduct relationships.

We all know that the therapists who expound these ideas do not really want everyone to let it all hang out, literally or figuratively. They do not tell people to go out and write sex blogs. Unfortunately, writing a sex blog fulfills the predicates that they have been setting out.

If therapists had rallied under the banners of modesty and temperance, they would not have to answer for helping produce a tell-all generation.

Once your reputation is compromised, restoring it is like getting the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube.

The first and most important element to reputation management is discretion. I am not saying good behavior; I am saying discretion about bad behavior.

There is a difference between misbehaving discreetly and advertising your bad behavior. Everyone misbehaves; everyone makes mistakes. If you decide to share those moments with the world you are saying that you want to be known as a person of weak character. If you practice discretion you are saying that those bad moments do not constitute who you are as a social being.

The rule applies to job interviews and to new relationships. In both of those places, and in many others, we all need to learn to mete out information about ourselves discreetly, in the service of presenting ourselves as the kind of people with whom others will want to associate.

Some people, however, would prefer to sacrifice their reputations by making themselves into the entertainment.

When a young Harvard student named Lena Chen began to write a sex blog, she discovered that her world did not look very kindly on women who exposed their sexuality in public. However much she truly believed that she was doing the right thing, she still suffered severe anxiety and panic attacks, to the point where she had to drop out of school.

As I have said, shame is not a social construct. Your reputation does not hinge on how you feel about yourself. When others have been induced, by your own behavior, to see you in a less than flattering light, you will have a great deal of difficulty restoring your reputation.

Evidently, you cannot recover your reputation, or save face, without changing your behavior. If a certain kind of behavior has compromised your reputation for integrity, the sooner you start acting with integrity the better it is. If your immodest behavior has damaged your reputation, the sooner you cover up the better you will be.

Without a consequential change in behavior the nostrums that therapy likes to offer cannot produce very much of an effect. Remember, reputation is about how others see you, not how you see yourself or feel about yourself.

If your reputation has been damaged because you behave badly, it makes no sense to put off changing your conduct on the grounds that you have to know why you did it before you can effect a consequential change.

Therapists who tell their patients that they must gain insight and understanding into their problems before they can change their behavior are inducing them to continue to behave badly, thus, to make the task of restoring their reputations that much more difficult.

Lately, we have seen groups of young women renouncing hook-ups in favor of something like sexual abstinence. Clearly they are setting out on the road to reputation recovery. See my posts here and here. I also recommend that you look at Susan Walsh's new post about the topic. Link here.

In one of my posts I commented on Jessica Grose's column about the same Lena Chen, former sex blogger, now running meetings on rethinking virginity. Grose believed, as did I, that Chen was joining those who were reasserting the value of abstinence and was working to recover her reputation.

To which Lena Chen took great exception. See her reply here. Chen refused to accept Grose's point, namely that she has stopped blogging about her sex life because she is concerned about her reputation. She declared that she has higher, more radical feminist motives.

What might that entail? I'm glad you asked. Chen explains her conference in these terms: "The Rethinking Virginity conference... was designed to critically interrogate the socially constructed notion of virginity, which I had studied over the past year in writing my senior thesis in sociology. I determined, through a combination of scholarly research and personal experience, that this virginity business was bunk."

This might make you rethink the value of a Harvard education, but I do not think that that was Chen's intention either.

I would also say that Chen's response demonstrates a level of judgment that inclines me to believe that Jessica Grose knows Chen's mind better than Chen herself.

Be that as it may, this example shows us another way of dealing with reputation loss. You can convince yourself that it does not matter. You can convince yourself that the world is wrong, and that when they look askance at your behavior the reason is that they have a problem.

This would lead us toward mind control. It may enhance your reputation as a radical thinker, but it does reveal a willful disrespect for the freedom of other minds.

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