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Why trustworthiness trumps reputation
Rethinking Reputation: How I respond when asked a question about managing reputation
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If someone asked you for three words to sum up your reputation, what would you say? This is the question I asked the audience when I gave a TED Talk way back in 2012. On reflection, it was a rubbish way to open a talk! Here’s why: reputation is what others perceive you to be. Reputation is a fickle thing because what people think and say (or write online) might be very different from who you think you are.
So, more than decade later, here's my latest thinking (and rethinking) on the fascinating relationship between trust and reputation. If you’re someone who spends time thinking about changing how people see you or your organization, read on! It’s different from what you might expect…
More on the topic of reputation below, after a Rethink Recap of interesting things I’ve read this week:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘brain privacy’. How protecting our thoughts and feelings being read and sold will become an issue within the next decade. This article in The Atlantic on ‘The Right to Not Have Your Mind Read’ really struck a chord.
I’m enjoying Adam Alter’s book Anatomy of a Breakthrough full of tools and research on how to get unstuck. A useful summary in the Behavioural Scientist.
And thanks to Rethinkerfor pointing me to Jenny Odell’s fascinating book How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy in response to my Rethinking Our Fear of Irrelevancy newsletter.
The power and pain of a damaged reputation
I’m a big fan of Vinted, a super easy and fast online marketplace for second-hand clothes. Fed up with buying my kids new stuff every time they grow out of something (a matter of months), I got them photographing and selling their clothes on Vinted and using the credits to buy things. All was going well until someone left me a 1* review and some horrible feedback. My son had accidentally sold swimming shorts with a rip in the bottom. Knowing my son, he probably didn’t even notice when he was wearing them himself! I refunded the money and apologized to the buyer but the damage to my reputation on Vinted was done. I dropped from 5-stars to 3-stars.
Narrative, behaviours and networks (NBN)
In The Reputation Game by Rupert Younger and David Waller, the authors outline three main levers you can pull to influence how you’re perceived by others:
2. A response to your behaviours
3. Communicated via networks
Let’s apply the ‘NBN’ formula to my Vinted example: the narrative is the review, which is in response to my behaviour of sending ripped shorts, which has been communicated via the platform in the form of a one-star review and a few, well, terse words. Let’s zoom out from swim shorts…
How do trust and reputation fit together?
In today’s digital world, it’s easy to become fixated on the two N’s (narrative and networks) – what other people say about you and how those messages are spread. But this can be a vacuous way to think about your reputation because, for the most part, this isn’t in your control. Reputation is highly contextual and subjective.
Here’s a simple framework showing how reputation fits together with trust and trustworthiness.
Reputation is perception, trust = belief, and trustworthiness = behaviours. What’s the foundation? What’s in our control? Yes, our trustworthiness! How we behave day in and day out.
Fixating on others, not ourselves
Now look at this Google Trends keyword search graph – the yellow line is trust; the blue line is reputation*, and the barely perceptible flat red line is trustworthiness.
(*As a side note, the top related search for reputation over the past five years is ‘Folklore Taylor Swift’!)
So why the lack of interest in trustworthiness? You could argue that it’s a longer word, or it sounds too academic, but I have a hunch it’s indicative of something much deeper. We spend our lives consumed by what other people say about us and what they believe to be true about us. Things that, for the most part, are not in our control! The constant quick swipe liking, starring, and commenting is making this systemic problem far worse. Younger and Waller were spot-on to call their book The Reputation Game because that’s what reputation has become in many instances – a system that you want to ‘game’.
So, from now on, every time someone asks me a question related to managing their reputation, I’m going to answer with: “you need to demonstrate your trustworthiness!” Focus on your capability and character. Focus on the difference between doing things and doing the right things. Being more trustworthy is free and in our control. Reputation is not.
That goes for online reputation systems, too – the world would be a much better place if we stopped bundling together people’s capability and character in quickfire 1–5-star reviews. (Yes, I’m still not quite over the swim shorts incident!)
Question for you: Whose reputation do you admire, and why?