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Personal Branding - Beware of Spinach in Your Teeth

Do you remember a time when you were having a great lunch with friends, laughing hysterically at a joke only to find out a short time later that you had a big visible piece of spinach stuck in your teeth? How embarrassing! You probably started wondering, how long that offending piece of spinach was there? Why didn't anyone tell you? Were your friends laughing at the joke or at your "missing" tooth?

This happens in the world of work, too. It's easy to get so busy with the day-to-day work that we fail to notice some of the things we do or say that are the work world equivalent of having spinach in our teeth. We often forget that our words and actions at work might be a blot on how we are perceived (our personal brand) similar to how having spinach in your teeth is a blot on our visual appearance. As with your lunch companions, you don't always know how others see you at work. I call this the Spinach in Your Teeth syndrome or SIYT.

Why should you care? Just like having spinach in your teeth during a meal, not knowing how your peers, boss, staff or clients perceive you, can be very embarrassing and often dangerous! How others perceive you is your personal brand. You may be seen in a far different way than you intend. You could miss out on promotions and never know why. Worse yet, you could be one of the next wave of people let go during an organizational restructure. If continually ignored by you, SIYT could bring the growth of your career to a dead stop.

What does SIYT look like in the corporate world? Let's take a look at Tom, Dick and Harriet to see how others perceive their words and actions.

Every morning, Tom spends time chatting with a friend in the hall. Although this daily ritual seems minimal to Tom, his boss, whose office opens up on that same hall, sees this casual chatting as a continual occurrence. She concludes that Tom is fooling around every day instead of working.

Dick contradicts everything one of his colleagues says in front of co-workers. Dick feels he's just telling it like it is. To others, it seems more like Dick isn't a team player, or that he has a vendetta against that individual.

Harriet never says a word in meetings. She doesn't think she has anything to add to the meeting, so why talk? The other participants see her as uncaring or unprepared.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? The good news is that you can do something about it. You can make your personal brand support rather than sabotage your career. Get "mirrors" installed all over your work environment. Not literally, but figuratively. Involve trusted co-workers, your boss, and staff to help you improve your personal brand. Ask them to let you know when they notice SIYT becoming a detracting factor for you.

How can you encourage your "mirrors" to provide valuable feedback? Give something in return. It might be something as simple as a handful of M&Ms or offering to help them identify their own moments of SIYT.

Narrow down what you want them to observe. Ask them to focus on specific occurrences, such as when you are in meetings, when you deliver a presentation, or when you address a problem with a co-worker.

Ask them questions such as: What did I do right? What did I do that was ineffective or insulting? How could I have been more tactful? When did things start going wrong? What buttons were pressed that sent me over the edge?

Accept their observations in a positive manner, even if you disagree. Yelling at them, arguing, or acting hurt will stop their honest feedback.

Once you've received their feedback, decide which of the items is the most important for you to work on immediately. Design a plan to work on that item and begin taking action at once. When you believe you've made progress, return to your SIYT mirrors to help you debrief your progress. Don't forget to celebrate the successful removal of your SIYT with those wonderful people who helped you identify them.

Getting caught with spinach in your teeth need not be a regular occurrence as long as you take proactive steps to identify and correct your SIYT in a timely manner. Enlist those you trust to act as your "mirrors," take action to remove the SIYT, and get your career success back on track.