Will they accept the new you?

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With New Year’s resolution-like zeal, you are ready to reinvent yourself. You will be confidant, not cocky, and cease the practice of reciting your curriculum vitae at cocktail parties. You will keep quiet when a colleague dares to say, “the media is” rather than “the media are.” You will replace “You are a moron” with “Here’s another perspective” when responding in faculty meetings. You will let other people talk, endeavor to share credit, offer help without expectation of reciprocity, and express appreciation even to people who cannot help you in the future.

But if you have established a reputation as someone who is cold, caustic, or arrogant, is it possible to ever reverse that? If you can manage to actually change your behavior, will people actually trust that the transformation is for real? This question came to mind for me the other day when a friend let me know that she is relocating in order to reinvent herself. She perceives that her colleagues have a fixed image about who she is and believes that image represents her old self, not her current self. She’s decided moving to a new place is her only option.

Changing how people view your professional potential can be tough, and moving to a new place is often the best strategy. But what if you want to stay where you are and simply position yourself as a different kind of person — perhaps someone who is ready to be civil, less obnoxious, more open-minded, or even strategic rather than reactionary?

Over the years, I have worked with several people who have acknowledged that their style or approach was not working and were finally willing to modify the ways in which they interacted with others. These new behaviors included such things as not hogging airspace in faculty meetings, actively acknowledging the efforts of others, intentionally not talking in meetings unless they had something important to say, banishing from their vocabulary the phrase, “I am so busy,” and scheduling daily time to accommodate people with emergencies so that they are able to say, “Of course I have time for you.” Each one has been surprised by the impact of their new habits on their interactions with others and delighted that modest changes in behavior have yielded such positive results. However, some who have committed to radical personality makeovers have expressed disappointment that not everyone has bought into the new them.

In some cases, I’ve suggested that the “reformed” actually apologize to those they have harmed or offended in the past. In my mind, I imagine conversations that begin with, “I’ve only recently come to understand the impact my behavior has had and I want to let you know that I am working to (insert behavior here).” So far, I’ve had exactly zero takers on that approach and typically get in response a version of, “I refuse to set myself up like that” or “This is work, not a 12-step program” (apparently 12-steppers are encouraged to apologize to those their addiction has harmed).

I’m curious to know what readers think about this. If jerk of a colleague realizes that it’s time to be a different kind of person, will you allow, trust or support the transformation? If a colleague apologized for past transgressions, how would you respond?

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