How To Build — and How to Destroy — a Good Reputation
“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” — Warren Buffett
One of the most valuable assets we possess can’t be measured, counted or displayed. It takes years to build and seconds to destroy, and we depend on it not only in business but in our marriages, friendships and all the other relationships in our lives. Our REPUTATION — the value others determine when we give them our word — shapes how the world sees us and largely determines the many opportunities in front of us.
One of my early Theory of 5 mentors, Harvey Ritter, once described trust as a finely decorated and trimmed tree going through a brutal storm. After the rain clears, the tree will have lost leaves and branches, and its battered form might not resemble how it once appeared. It takes months, if not years, of nurturing, watering, sunlight and cultivation to reach its formerly pristine shape.
The tree example is what I used when my daughters were young, to allow them to visualize better how a concept like “trust” can be damaged by lies and other abuses of trust like the trimmed tree in a storm. Even as adults, we need to pay attention to the trust others hold in us. Trust is earned over time — and will be lost instantly if abused. My mentors stressed to me that, when our actions, behaviors and results match what we say we’ll do, we’ll build credibility and a good reputation. On the other hand, people will see us as hypocrites when our actions and behaviors are not aligned, and any trust they might have had in us will quickly evaporate.
While these concepts might seem simple to our adult understanding, it’s worth a moment to consider what our words and actions can mean to those around us. In the end, it’s been said, all we have is our reputation. Are we as good as our word?
There are two ways reputation can be damaged — one is obvious and the other we might not often think about — that we should avoid at all costs.
The Reputation Killer — The most obvious way to lose someone’s trust is to lie to them. Lies destroy trust like a fire through a dry forest. Lies do damage not only today but, because they reveal the character of the person telling them, they affect all future interactions we have with that person. We lose faith in that person.
Children often go through a lying phase as a way to test the boundaries of their world. When parents don’t show them precisely where those boundaries are — and that lying falls well outside those boundaries — children who lie grow up to be adults who have no problem stretching the truth. While they see this as a shortcut to get what they want or to avoid punishment, lies eventually catch up to liars. Even small lies that don’t seem consequential at the time will build up and, ultimately, work to erode our reputation. Without truth, there is no trust.
This type of broken trust is particularly hard to repair because we doubt the very intentions of the person who lied to us. Are they sorry they lied, or are they sorry they got caught lying? Even if the person has a genuine change of heart and feels remorse, the damage has been done. It will take a lot of work on both sides to repair this trust.
While we might want to trust them — especially if they are a friend or family member — on some level, we will resist that urge because we doubt their character. When we catch them in a lie again or see that their lying is a pattern in their lives, regaining trust becomes more difficult. Eventually, we write them off. If it’s a workplace setting, they’ll lose their job or at least not be trusted with anything important. If they are a friend, we’ll stop calling. If they are family, we might smile when we see them, but we’ll avoid them whenever possible.
Reputation Erosion — Most of us have — or have had — at least one friend in our circle who is always 15 to 30 minutes late, no matter what. You could almost set your watch by their inconsistency. They usually have a “good” excuse — the traffic was terrible, they couldn’t find their keys, they forgot something and had to turn back, and so forth — but the fact is that they cannot be counted on to show up on time.
While it’s not malicious — they don’t mean to let people down — the end result is that their friends, family and colleagues learn to make allowances for their tardiness. If a group is meeting for dinner and they’re a little late, it’s not a big deal. If a group is meeting to go to a show, however, everyone feels put out. If they are late for a business meeting and have a key role to play, it could mean disaster. Even if this person manages to show up on time for a change, everyone who depends on them feels extra stress because their bad reputation always precedes them.
When we can’t depend on someone to do what they said they’d do — what they, in effect, promised — they’ll slowly lose our trust. Eventually, this person stops being invited to events when timing is imperative. In business, critical items get assigned to the people their leaders trust to get the job done.
Isolated incidents of being late, missing a deadline because of extraneous circumstances or simply forgetting to do a chore we promised to do aren’t reputation killers by themselves — as long as we work afterward to make it right. Most people drop the ball from time to time. When these incidents become a pattern, that is when our reputation will take a hit and the erosion begins.
I believe it is imperative that our promises mean something when we give them, no matter what. People who are inconsistent about the little things generally aren’t trusted with the big issues.
Our Word Is Our Bond
When we focus on being truthful in all our interactions and always doing what we say we’re going to do, people will know that they can count on us. Having that kind of reputation will fuel relationships and build strong foundations for all our relationships.