Discover more from All Rise with Sally Helgesen
The power of benevolent brainwashing
A gentle way to shift perceptions over time
Melanie, a participant in one of my virtual leadership programs, was frustrated. She had been described by her boss as “not a team player” during a recent performance review.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I’d always viewed teamwork as one of my strengths. I thought my boss had it wrong, so I started asking people on my team what they thought. Every one of them said that they saw me as team-oriented. This made me feel better, but I still had to figure a way to get that message across to my boss.”
Melanie spent time pondering how she might do things differently. But since she was already putting her team front and center on a daily basis, ideas for how to change her behavior proved elusive. Then the solution hit her. In order to shift his perception, she needed to focus on planting the idea that she was a strong team player in her boss’s head.
In other words, it was time for some benevolent brainwashing.
Melanie says, “I decided that in every conversation I had with my boss, and in every email I sent him– or cc’d him on– I would mention the value I placed on being a team player. I’d start our conversations with things like, “As a team player, I believe…” Or “Since I place so much value on team cohesion, I’d like to try…” Or “In support of my team, I want to recognize…”
She started using the language of teams, even when it felt like she was reaching. And she asked a few colleagues to do the same when her name came up.
She says, “I was concerned about sounding like a broken record. But I had to find a way to bring my boss’s perceptions of me into line with reality, so I kept at it. I challenged myself to find imaginative ways to work my ‘I’m a team player’ message into all our exchanges. It became a kind of game, which made it fun.”
And yes, when Melanie’s next performance review came around, her boss solemnly informed her that he saw her team building skills as one of her chief strengths.
The lesson here is that we have the power to shape people’s perceptions in our favor by intentionally choosing our words.
As noted, what’s being advocated is a benevolent form of brainwashing. Like regular brainwashing, it benefits from being consistent: we must stick to the message we are trying to convey. But it’s based on suggestion rather than coercion. We let the message gently percolate rather than trying to force it.
I shared Melanie’s team player story during an in-person Rising Together workshop in the Midwest earlier this month, and was rewarded with another example of how it works. A participant representing a biotech firm said she’d learned she’d lost out on a promotion because people in the company saw her as a scientist, not a leader.
She said, “My coach suggested talking about leadership all the time. So I did. I told people about leadership books I was reading, or what I’d learned in a training session, or what leadership skills I was trying to develop. And guess what? It worked! Six months later, my practice head said he’d recommended me for a new position because he viewed me as ‘that rare animal, a scientist with leadership potential.’”
So think about the word or phrase you’d most like to be known for at this particular point in your career: future leader, contributor, innovative, idea factory, team spark plug, mentor. Then start using it. And wait for the results.
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