08 August 2023 |

How to manage other peoples’ perception (and why you should)

By Tracey Wallace

I’m a big Survivor fan and over the last 5 and a half months of maternity leave, my wife and I have binged the show––and while there are so many reasons I love this game, one of them is just how many parallels I see within it to the professional world. 

The biggest one? 

Someone’s perception is their reality. 

In the game of Survivor, how your tribemates perceive you––your actions, your intentions, your explanation––often determines how long you stay in the game. It doesn’t mean that your actions, intentions and explanations don’t matter, because they do, but only insofar as you can get others to view them the same way as you. 

Many fantastic Survivor players have been voted out early on simply because their tribemates perceived a different person than the one that player thought they were putting forward. 

This happens in our professional lives all the time, too. And like some of those great Survivor players that never made it past the merge, junior employees and even expert individual contributors often undervalue just how important other people’s perception is on their careers. 

These folks often default to the more commonly heard phase: Your perception is your reality. 

That’s true, too. And in fact, for some people, your perception is what is leading you to burn out. That was true for me at BigCommerce. I let my perception run wild, conceived of stories that likely weren’t even true, and ended up leaving a job with great health benefits and a decent career trajectory (the CEO literally tried to talk me out of leaving) with nothing lined up. 

My perception was my reality, and there was no talking me out of it. 

This is true for other people, too. That is how strong perceptions can be—whether they are true or not. 

And other people’s perceptions have a whole lot of weight on your promotion possibilities, your pay, your team’s expansion, etc. So while you cannot control other people’s perception as well as you might be able to control your own, there are some tried and true ways of thinking and approaching situations in order to set yourself up for success. 

Let’s chat through them. 

Rigidity vs. flexibility 

One of the biggest differences between junior and senior employees is their bias toward rigidity or flexibility in their plans and processes. 

Junior employees often err to the side of rigidity––especially as they grow more adept at their specific skill. In theory, this makes sense. You come up with a plan and a strategy. In marketing, most plans and strategies need time to bake out and produce results. So, straying too early on can spell ruin. And, for junior employees at this specific level, ruin may mean no promotion at the review cycle. 

A lot is at stake. 

But, rigidity often has the opposite effect. Instead of getting you closer to your goal of succeeding at said plan or strategy, it causes others to perceive you as inflexible, and discredits you as a creative problem solver and team player. 


You might be thinking: “But Tracey, my company is always changing directions! Either the CEO or founder or VP––they have insane shiny ball syndrome and are always chasing after the next, newest thing. If I was flexible to their every whim, I’d go mad—and nothing would ever get done!”

That’s fair. And it is also just a fact of working in companies. 

Change is a constant at any organization, and that’s even more true now as new technologies pop up, the economic environment shifts more frequently, etc. In fact, one of the most required skills of leaders is great change management. Harvard Business Review has an entire section of their website dedicated to this topic, and they’ve been doing research on the topic for decades. 

So, that is to say, none of this is new. No matter where you work, someone or several folks will want to change direction right in the middle of any given strategy. 

And it is your job to learn how to creatively manage that desire, make folks feel heard, appear flexible to those last minute changes, and come up with effective shifts that hit the original goals as well as the new ones. 

That is quite literally the job of a senior employee. 

Asking for help 

Another misunderstanding often held by junior employees is that asking for help is seen as not being able to accomplish the task at hand. Again, the opposite is true. 

Asking for help or raising a flag for your boss or manager that something isn’t going as expected, and being able to clearly communicate the roadblocks or the issues is a telltale sign of a more senior employee. 

And this becomes more and more important as you are given bigger and bigger projects. Often, junior employees are given big projects prior to a promotion to see just how well they do at this specific task (and hitting the goal of course!). 

Employees who take the big project on in stride, assume they can do it without help, or don’t raise red flag issues to their boss—and then miss important deadlines or details––will often not receive that promotion, and this information will come up clearly in a performance review. 

This is easy to correct, but it does require the putting aside of ego. 

Here is what others perceive of you when you do not ask for help:

  • You do not understand your own capacity, your strengths and weaknesses, and/or have poor time management skills
  • You do not work well as part of a team 
  • You are not to be trusted––that silence from you isn’t good news, but rather, bad news…a sign that things aren’t going well.

Combine the above and you’ll find yourself being micro-managed as managers try to overcorrect for the issue. 

Not an ideal scenario for anyone. 

Instead, it is far better to use your 1:1s with your boss to:

Talk through your priorities for the week

Talk through your concerns about specific projects and any roadblocks you have (and have some, or explain how you managed to overcome one)

You get promoted when you are trusted to take on big projects and alert the right people when things aren’t going well––and doing so in time for other folks to hop in and help correct the issue. 

None of us can do everything alone. And none of us are good at everything. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses, being able to delegate out your weaknesses to those for whom it is their strength, and properly communicating with your boss on progress, roadblocks, and timetables will grow trust in your abilities, and the perception that you know your limits. 

Again, this is table stakes for a senior-level employee. 

There is no I in team 

Both of the above issues often stem from junior employees or individual contributors not seeing themselves as part of a larger team, so not asking for help as they should, or being inflexible to the needs and desires of others. 

Yes––is working on a team far harder than working alone? Absolutely. No one liked group projects in school. But the etymology of the word “company” is from Old French for “large group of people,” and even before that from Latin for “bread fellow.” 

To succeed within companies and organizations, you have to remember that you are a team at all times-–and everyone’s needs are important for the health of the organization (though ideally the organization prioritizes those needs…or else, chaos). 

But this tidbit stands on its own, too. Just as in Survivor, you’ll likely make natural alliances within your company. That’s great! Alliances are necessary and helpful for advancement, and just plain having a good time at work. 

But never become so tied to your alliance that you forget that you’re on a team. Plans change. People change. Who you’ll need to help you accomplish a larger goal will change––and you’ll need to do everything in your power to work with folks across the entire company, no matter their team, their role, or even their juxtaposing goals. 

The best thing you can do for your career is to be a good teammate, to make others feel seen and heard, to creatively adjust your plans and ideas as needs change, and to put yourself in the vulnerable seat, too, by asking for help and making everyone a more unified team in the process.