You Think Changing Behavior is Hard? Try Changing Perceptions

Perception vs. Change

Behavioral change is hard. But a leader’s greater challenge is actually changing others’ perceptions.


Our purpose as an organization—and my purpose as an executive coach—is to help leaders make meaningful and measurable change so that they can positively impact their people, the business, and those who are near and dear to them outside of the workplace.


In our executive coaching programs, the leaders we coach face two challenges. One is to make behavioral changes. We work with leaders who are already highly successful and are looking to foster more success. Fortunately, most of those leaders can walk out of a coaching session and make changes fairly quickly.


However, the second, and bigger, challenge leaders face is changing the perceptions that others have of them. After all, there’s history, first impressions, baggage, and previous experiences that get in the way. In addition, there’s always a lag between when a leader makes a change and when others notice that change or even believe it to be real and lasting. Our research (from tracking leadership behavioral change through our Coachmetrix technology) suggests that the average lag between when a leader makes a change and when others recognize it is about five (5) months. And that’s for a leader who is consistently working on that change and reminding people around them about the change through pulse feedback surveys.


It’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “I just don’t trust that the change this person is making is real.”


Labels: Other People’s Perceptions


We all have labels. Our team has a label. Our departments have labels. When the terms human resources or engineering or sales come up, it triggers a preconceived notion about those departments. It could be positive. It could be negative.


The label is created when we first meet someone. The perception that is formed is then later confirmed or denied by further interactions. Sometimes a leader is successful in changing a label or first impression. Other times, the leader is not.

For many leaders, the perception is out of alignment with the leader’s intention. For example, the leader may be trying to push a project through to meet a deadline. Others might see the pushing behavior and then develop a perception that the leader doesn’t value their input or want to involve them in the project. The leader has an intention (get work done), others see the behavior (pushing without input), and then the perception is formed (she doesn’t care).

If you ask the leader, it’s more than likely that the leader does indeed care.

But the perception is out of alignment with the intention.

So the question is—how do you change others’ perceptions?

Change Perception, Change Your Reputation

Step 1: Know Your Current Label

The first step is to understand your current label. How do others perceive you right now? Such self-awareness is a critical component to being an effective leader. It’s about understanding your impact on people, processes and the business.


What is your label?


How do others perceive what you do?


After all, what we think about ourselves is often different than what other people think. Here are a few ways to learn how others perceive you:

  • Just ask! Find someone you trust and ask for input on how you show up in the office or social settings.
  • Pay attention to the jokes others make about you. My colleague and friend Barry Shapiro often says there’s always some level of truth in jest.
  • Gather external data through 360 reviews.
  • Have a leadership or executive coach conduct confidential interviews to learn more about your strengths, weaknesses and blind spots.
  • Complete a personality style profile such as DiSC and then review the results with a trusted colleague.

Step 2: Create Your ideal Label


Identify the label you want. Who is it that you want to be? Be very intentional about what and who that is. After all, the easiest way to change a first impression is to make the right first impression at the beginning.


Step 3: Identify One Behavior to Change


This is the opportunity to close the gap between your current label (the perception others have of you) and your ideal label (the perception you want others to have). However, you need to remain focused and not try to change too much at once—a maximum of one or two behaviors at a time. Get clear on the behavior that you want others to see differently that will then change everything else. From there, you can identify a few action items that will help you demonstrate that behavior. For example, if you want to be seen as a more approachable leader you could have action items related to how you approach team meetings or how you conduct 1-on-1s and developmental conversations with your people. Or, perhaps you specifically change your language when in disagreement or conflict with others to demonstrate that you are open to new ideas.


Step 4: Be Vulnerable and CourageousGo Public and Enlist Supporters


This step takes a combination of vulnerability and courage to go public with your action plan by letting those people who are impacted by your behaviors know what you are working on. It’s a vulnerable process to let people know your weaknesses. That said, there may not be anything more powerful than when a leader stands in front of her people and says, “These are my development areas.”


Go public with that behavior by involving other people in your circle who are impacted by your behaviors.


Step 5: Follow UpConsistently


Consistently asking for feedback and “feedforward” is a critical step in the process to accelerate behavioral change—following up with the people who are impacted by your behaviors. Without consistent follow-up, it’s unlikely that perceptions of you will change. Notice the word “consistent.” I didn’t say random, seldom or follow up just once. You have to follow up every 30 days on a consistent basis. Why? Because (1) it will remind your people that you are still working on the development area, and (2) it will give you ideas on what to implement for the future.


Step 6: Measure and Repeat


In this last step, you measure your success and then repeat the process every 30 days. The 6-step process is more circular in nature than linear. We use our Coachmetrix technology with executive coaching and leadership development clients to send pulse feedback surveys that provide a measurement on whether the leader is moving the needle on change.


The bottom line is that what gets measured gets done.


When done with the first round of measurement, go back to your action plan, update it with suggestions you received from your supporters, and repeat the process.


Stakeholder Centered Coaching


I’m very proud to say that much of this methodology can be found in a new book I just co-authored with Marshall Goldsmith, the New York Times best-selling author and Leadership 50 Thinker. It’s a quick read in an actionable and fun format and will help you make personal change that lasts.


So, what do you do from here?


Start with the basic steps outlined above. In our next few posts, we’ll be exploring how to make specific change when others see you as overly passive (not speaking up, deferring too much), overly aggressive (autocratic, controlling too much), or overly protective (keeping your distance, arrogant and above it all).


If you want more help in accelerating behavioral change, maybe a leadership or executive coach is a good fit for you. Send us an email at to tell us more about what you need.