Because we live in such a small world, it is critically important not to burn bridges - no matter how tempted you might be! You aren’t going to like everyone and everyone isn’t going to like you, but there’s no need to make enemies. For example, when you look for your next job, it’s quite likely that the person interviewing you will know someone you know. In this way your reputation precedes you everywhere you go. This is beneficial when you have a great reputation, but harmful when your reputation is damaged.

I’ve seen the following scenario play out innumerable times. Imagine you’re interviewing for a job that has dozens of candidates. The interview goes well and you appear to be a great match for the position. During the meeting, the interviewer looks at your résumé and realizes that you used to work with an old friend of hers. After the interview, she makes a quick call to her friend to ask about you. A casual comment from her friend about your past performance can seal the deal or cut you off at the knees. In many cases you will believe the job was in the bag, right before you receive a rejection letter. You’ll never know what hit you.

Essentially, your reputation is your most valuable asset—so guard it well. But don’t be terribly demoralized if you make some mistakes along the way. With time it is possible to repair a stained reputation. Over the years I’ve come up with a metaphor that has helped me put this in perspective: every experience you have with someone else is like a drop of water falling into a pool. As your experiences with that person grow, the drops accumulate and the pool deepens. Positive interactions are clear drops of water and negative interactions are red drops of water. But they aren’t equal. That is, a number of clear drops can dilute one red drop, and that number differs for different people. Those who are very forgiving only need a few positive experiences—clear drops—to dilute a bad experience, while those who are less forgiving need a lot more to wash away the red. Also, for most people the pool drains slowly. As a result, we tend to pay attention to the experiences that have happened most recently, as opposed to those that happened a long time ago.

This metaphor implies that if you have a large reserve of positive experiences with someone, then one red drop is hardly noticed. It’s like putting a drop of red ink into the ocean. But if you don’t know a person well, one bad experience stains the pool bright red. You can wash away negative interactions by flooding the pool with positive interactions until the red drops fade, but the deeper the red, the more work you have to do to cleanse the pool. I’ve found that sometimes the pool color never clears; when that happens, it’s time to stop interacting with that particular person.

This serves as a reminder of the importance of every experience we have with others, whether they are friends, family, co-workers, or service providers. In fact, some organizations actually capture information about how you treat them, and that influences how they treat you. For example, at some well-known business schools, every interaction a candidate has with the school or its personnel is noted. If a candidate is rude to the receptionist, this is recorded in his or her file and comes into play when admissions decisions are made. This also happens at companies such as JetBlue. According to Bob Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule, if you’re consistently rude to JetBlue’s staff, you will get blacklisted and find it strangely impossible to get a seat on their planes.

Obviously, you can’t make everyone happy all the time, and some of your actions are going to ruffle feathers. One way to figure out how to handle these situations is to imagine how you will describe what happened later, when the dust has cleared. I’m reminded of a case a few years ago when a student came to me for advice. He was leading the campus-wide business plan competition and one team didn’t show up for the final round of judging. Like all the teams that reach that stage of the competition, the team had been working on the project for seven months and had managed to make it over a lot of hurdles to get to the finish line. The team hadn’t received the message about the presentation time, in part because it was posted late and in part because they weren’t paying attention. The student who came to ask my opinion was torn about what to do. He felt there were two clear choices: he could hold fast to the rules and disqualify the team, or he could be flexible and find another time for them to present their work. His gut reaction was to stick to the rules. Everyone else had managed to show up, and it was going to be a burden to reschedule. The only guidance I gave him was this: whatever he did, I hoped he would be pleased with his decision at a later date. I urged him to consider how he would describe this challenge if during a job interview he were asked how he handled an ambiguous situation. The delinquent team was subsequently allowed to present, and I realized afterward that thinking about how you want to tell the story in the future is a great way to assess your response to dilemmas in general. Craft the story now so you’ll be proud to tell it later.

This is a wonderful video clip of Greg Ballard, a successful CEO, describing the importance of treating everyone in your organization well. He demonstrates how this often comes back to you in endless ways.

You can find many more videos such as this one at the ECorner web site.

This blog post is an edited excerpt from What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20.

About the Author

Tina Seelig

Tina Seelig, Ph.D., is a professor at the Stanford School of Engineering. Her latest book is Insight Out.

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