BOOK REVIEW: How to play the reputation game | Fin24

BOOK REVIEW: How to play the reputation game

Nov 02 2017 06:00
Ian Mann

The Reputation Game: The Art of Changing How People See You, by David Waller and Rupert Younger

YOUR reputation and that of your company is more valuable than money. We are all playing with both of these reputations, so knowing how the game works, its rules and winning strategies are essential.

The reason I have always noted the qualifications of the authors of the books I review is because there are so many books available of widely varying quality. If the issue is critical to business success, the author’s gravitas is in that area is essential.

The authors of The Reputation Game tick all the boxes: Waller wrote for the Financial Times, and currently consults to companies and governments on reputational issues. Younger is the founder-director of Oxford University’s Centre for Corporate Reputation.

Reputation is different from marketing, PR, branding, status or image. What others say about us will affect our ability to achieve, even if what they say is nothing more than gossip. You will need to clarify the kind of reputation you want, for doing what, and with whom.

Goldman Sachs, for example, is simultaneously reviled and revered. The reason for this contradiction lies in the simple fact that we all have multiple reputations, each of them for something, with someone. Goldman’s success is built on the quality of their (generously rewarded) people, and for doing better for their clients than the competition. The bank will only become concerned with criticism from politicians and regulators which might have implications for its business.

“There are three ‘dice’ in the reputation game,” the authors explain, “behaviours, networks and narratives.”

Your behaviour, and that of your company, sends signals about what others can expect from you. But behaviour and reputation are always intermediated by perception.

The Mafia’s reputation for violence forced customers to fall into line, and violent families accumulated significantly more wealth and territory than the peaceful ones. However, over time the mob’s need to carry out the beatings, arson attacks and even murders necessary to maintain their reputation declined. The perception matters enough.

The Special Air Service (SAS) is perceived to be one of the most effective fighting forces in the world. This small team of ruthless, highly trained soldiers could be more effective than an entire regiment. Their reputation has material value. It attracts the very best soldiers in the British Army, and acts as a valuable psychological deterrent for the enemy.

There are two parts to the behaviour component of reputation. There is your ‘capability’ reputation that comes from the perception of how likely you are to do your job effectively, and your ‘character’ reputation – your morals and social qualities.

It is too simplistic to assert that "it takes 20 years to build a reputation, and 5 minutes to destroy it". In fact, the two dimensions of behaviour reputation - capability and character - have very different dynamics when it comes to loss or recovery.

“Capability reputations are extremely sticky, while character reputations are much more volatile,” the authors explain.

Rolls-Royce’s decades-long reputation for manufacturing a reliable, superior aircraft engine remains even after a Qantas plane’s engine exploded shortly after take-off in 2010. (No casualties.) Airlines, passengers and investors gave Rolls-Royce the benefit of the doubt. 

One’s character reputation, by contrast, is much more fragile. A reputation for acting honourably and fairly can be annihilated in moments.

The second component in the reputation game is "network". There are two types of networks, ‘closed’ and ‘open’.

A network is ‘closed’ when all the people or entities are connected to each other. Robert knows Jessica well and Jessica knows Robert well, and Robert’s friends also know Jessica’s friends. An open network is where two people or organisations are tied, but their network of contacts are not connected to each other.

If your behaviour is the message, your network is the method of travel. Messages move fastest in closed networks.

In the past, when we lived in closed networks (small towns), an individual’s creditworthiness did not have to be formalised. Today, the networked information that we use in credit scores may be based on sophisticated mechanisms, but at their core is information, shared through closed networks.

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal offered an interesting insight. “We do not worry about being respected in towns through which we pass. But if we are going to remain in one for a certain time, we do worry. How long does this time have to be?”

Every minute of every day, Facebook users will share 2.5 million pieces of content, Twitter users will tweet 300 000 times, and 220 000 new photos will be posted to Instagram. This requires a reconsideration of the meaning of closed and open networks.

Capability and character narratives are the two mechanisms through which legitimacy is built. The size of the gap between what we say and what we do, determines the level of our authenticity.

People and organisations are being held to increasingly high standards of behaviour. Consider only the damage to many individuals’ and corporations’ reputations caused by the Panama Papers revelations, published in early 2016. Many carefully crafted reputations were revealed as inauthentic.

Apple has had several technical gaffes with little or no damage to their reputation. This is because their narrative focuses on Apple’s ease of use, combined with beautiful design, rather than technological prowess.   

We all have multiple reputations which we cannot easily control, because reputation is what other people are saying about us. However, learning how to use these three elements, behaviour, networks and narratives to our advantage will be valuable in managing this mercurial force.

Readability:      Light ---+- Serious
Insights:           High -+--- Low
Practical:            High -+--- Low

  • Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

ian mann  |  opinion  |  book reviews


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