88: Control your narrative
Years ago, someone once told me that “perception is reality” when it comes to reputation at work. Many years later, I’ve come to understand better that this means that there will always be a narrative about how someone works at an organisation. The narrative can be positive or negative, and can be controlled by the individual it describes, or by others.
Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my career, this has been by far one of the hardest.
Trigger warning and disclaimer
This post makes reference by analogy to abusive relationships and gaslighting. I am not a psychologist, therapist or professional counsellor. I am endeavouring to write carefully and respectfully about this topic, so please forgive me if I fall short in this regard.
If you are in any way affected by domestic abuse, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US, consult UK guidance for how to receive help, or contact an equivalent organisation in your own country.
When others control your narrative
When other people are in control of your narrative, then they can paint a picture of you that may or may not bear any relation to reality. When enough people receive that description, in the absence of (and sometimes despite) evidence to the contrary, they will begin to accept that portrait of you as fact. It’s worth noting that such a narrative can be flattering or negative, and can start out seemingly minor.
“X is a safe pair of hands.”
“If you want to get a project done well, give it to X.”
“Oh, X is always stirring up trouble.”
“X is not great in front of customers.”
Once a narrative about you is established, regardless of who is controlling it, it can be very difficult to shift. It will sit at the back of people’s minds, feeding into their unconscious biases and colouring their opinions in subtle ways.
For example, if the narrative is that someone is not great in front of customers, people will be less likely to bring them into meetings, or to let that person run them. (In some organisations, the sales or marketing teams can be gatekeepers to customers.) This reduced customer contact can be a serious handicap for a product manager, particularly if they didn’t have a great deal of agency in the first place (if relatively inexperienced or junior, for example).
Positive narratives can be problematic also. There always seems to be that person in an organisation who is selected to drive big, new initiatives, or bags that plum promotion, while everyone conveniently ignores their terrible previous track record.
Particularly for negative perceptions, regaining control of your narrative from this position is difficult simply because what you do and how you react can inadvertently reinforce the negative narrative. This is why they’re so pernicious. For example, once someone has a reputation for “causing trouble”, their attempts to refute that narrative can be interpreted by others as you “causing trouble” again.
It is tricky to defend against this. People unconnected with the situation can look at what is happening and how it is being explained and conclude that it is a rational (though in fact incorrect) explanation.
“I prescribe you a new job.”
Kristy Lee Hochenberger Ph.D. writes the following for Psychology Today:
Controlling the narrative can be beneficial for the manipulator for many reasons. They can decide whether they are the hero deserving praise or the victim in need of sympathy. In either situation, the accompanying actor is the villain.
Gaslighting goes a step further and convinces the other party that they are truly “crazy,” “out of control,” or “not remembering correctly.” It is a mind-manipulation tool and particularly powerful in unequal relationships, especially regarding gender and sexuality (Sweet, 2019). Regardless of purpose or execution, gaslighting is abuse and goes a step further than merely ripping out pages of a story and rewriting them. Gaslighting gives the manipulator the ability to not only control the victim but also to convince the victim that they are wrong (Spear, 2020).
Even the strongest and most emotionally stable individual can fall prey to gaslighting. As a victim of gaslighting, you most likely have a deep or long-running connection to the narcissist. Questioning yourself and your sanity isn’t a sign of a mental illness or weakness; it is a sign of abuse. Research has proven that victims (friends, lovers, co-workers, family members) will rationalize the situation (Spear, 2020). In essence, the victims play directly into the hands of the narcissist and not just support the story rewrite, but confirm the power of the narcissist.“Regaining Control of the Narrative”, Kristy Lee Hochenberger Ph.D., Psychology Today (22 February 2020, retrieved 21 February 2023)
I’ve not been in an abusive domestic relationship, however the description above captures accurately how I felt at one of my employed jobs.
I was lucky in many respects:
I had a few very close, trustworthy and objective-minded colleagues, who helped me retain some sense of self throughout. I have never forgotten what they did for me, and I continue to repay their kindness today.
I had the presence of mind to seek help from a professional career counsellor, who reassured me that I was capable and competent, and that my career wouldn’t end if I simply resigned and did something else.
I also went to see my doctor, to check whether I was, in fact, losing my mind and had been the source of the problems at work all along. He listened carefully, thought for a while and then wrote me a prescription. It read: “I prescribe you a new job.”
Shortly after that I handed in my resignation, left, decompressed, felt much better, and went on to do far more fun and interesting things with many lovely people. I’ve never looked back, and I stayed fast friends with all those colleagues that helped me out back then.
HR may be a false friend
Some parts of your organisation are meant to be professionally independent — your HR team being one. However, (at least in my experience) some HR teams can be more biased to serving the needs of the organisation first, rather than those of the employee.
As soon as an employee raises a formal complaint, the HR team may seek out the opinion of their manager and peers, not necessarily the facts, and themselves accept the narrative about the employee. They can also seek primarily to limit damage to the organisation, rather than handling the employee’s grievance respectfully and independently. I hasten to stress that not all HR teams will behave in this way.
If you find yourself in this situation, seek independent advice from someone outside of your organisation, who you can trust to have your best interests at heart: a professional career counsellor, or if things have got to that stage, an employment lawyer.
How to regain control
Regaining control of your narrative from this position is difficult simply because what you do and how you react can inadvertently reinforce the negative narrative.
What you can do:
Show your peers and managers through your actions that the way you are being portrayed is inaccurate — if this means going out of your way to work, and be seen to be working, in a way that counters the negative narrative, then so be it. Arguably this tacitly accepts the narrative, which isn’t great, because you shouldn’t have to be one that changes your behaviour. However, this is more about demonstrating that the narrative is wrong.
Demonstrate that the way you are being portrayed is inaccurate through fact-checking, record keeping and (reliable) secondary witnesses. This can be very valuable particularly if you find yourself raising a formal grievance.
Leave to work elsewhere, start from a clean slate, and mindfully control your own narrative there. Your mental well-being is far more important than any job, and this remains the case even when the tech sector job market is looking awful (as it is at the time of writing).
You can regain control your own narrative by showing and demonstrating what you’ve done, then documenting the facts and reinforcing what you’ve done in things like weeknotes, catch-ups with your manager, performance appraisals, and so on. (Use this for good, not evil.)
The idea is that if you’re spreading a consistent message to more people than anyone else with a competing message that other people then repeat and amplify, then that narrative will win out by force of numbers. But like anything else that’s to do with people, it’s rarely going to be that clear-cut.
Above all, try to remember that when it comes to jobs, you still have agency, even when it doesn’t feel like it. Your prior work experience is not erased, nor do you forget all you’ve learned, by resigning from a job. Leaving a toxic work environment doesn’t make you “a quitter”.
You may feel incapable, incompetent, unemployable right now, but believe me, you’re only feeling this way because you’ve been taken a mental battering for so long. Surround yourself with loving, caring, encouraging people who can remind and prove to you that you are actually highly capable, competent and eminently employable. Then go out and prove it to yourself.
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