Navigating the “What will people say?” dilemma in business

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Reputation or the question of “what will people say?” is not something that is rooted just in our Arab culture or our community. It’s a question that many people across the world battle against, and sometimes drives the decisions we make. Now, what happens if we need to make tough decisions in the realm of business? How does this mindset come into play? 

Being an entrepreneur myself, I’ve had to make difficult decisions in the past. I’ve noticed an overarching theme of constantly being warned how others will perceive me. I would get warnings from family members or partners that ‘you need to be careful how others perceive you’, what previous colleagues or future clients might say if I got involved in this or that, or what people I may meet (inshallah) may think if I made a certain decision.

I can tell you that the pressure of all these questions was real, and a part of it did get to me. As someone who is passionate about building companies that do good, I love hearing feedback and using it to improve. At the same time, I do get a lot of people (some of whom I don’t even know) who do not necessarily provide constructive feedback, but rather they get heated with decisions they assume I’ve made. And of course – some would tell me that the “village is talking”. 

Over time, I’ve come to realize that ultimately character precedes reputation. 

The best analogy I can think of to describe this statement is to think of character like the solid foundation of a house built to last. Your reputation is just the finished product that people see from the outside.

Why is the “character before reputation” mindset so important in leadership? 

If you’re in a leadership position, there are times where you will have to make difficult decisions. Decisions you know not everyone will be happy with. If you get bogged down with “what will people say?”, you’re not moving forward, and such static progress could potentially be destructive – either for your business or team. 

It’s like having a leader that won’t make tough decisions because they are afraid that others won’t like them afterwards. The fact is, if you want to please everyone, consider opening a food truck by yourself and sell knafeh. Everyone loves knafeh. If you want to lead, then you need to be comfortable that you will make difficult choices that not everyone will like. 

If you want to please everyone, consider opening a food truck by yourself and sell knafeh. Everyone loves knafeh. If you want to lead, then you need to be comfortable that you will make difficult choices that not everyone will like. 

Sammy Al-Sitaro on leading and making difficult choices.

Staying true to your own individual character and even the character of your business , which I would hope are aligned! (I really do!), decisions become a lot clearer.

In a changing business landscape, things move quickly. 2020 is a testament to this. Imagine finding out that you’re are living through a global pandemic, uncertain about your future or what will happen to your business, and then worrying about what your Tant Nae3ma will say if you decide to temporarily lay people off, as a last resort to keep your business afloat. Perhaps your Tant Nae3ma is a supplier or customer. Should that be any different? Here, it’s important to acknowledge that there is a huge difference between a stakeholder analysis and mitigating risks, and what I deem as a “destructive reputation”. 

Tant Nae3ma sighted judging your business decisions in the “village”.

Wait…what’s the difference between productive assessments and destructive reputation?  

It’s important to establish that there is a difference between assessing stakeholder interests and getting important feedback, versus the phenomenon of a “what will people say?” mindset in business.  

First, it is fundamental in business to make decisions that take into account and reflect a concern for the interests and wellbeing of all affected stakeholders. After all, the golden rule is help when you can, avoid harm when you can. 

To illustrate in the context of the  pandemic again: if you measure and assess feedback from suppliers and customers and move forward based on the information you’ve collected accordingly, then this is productive. Conversely, if you simply make decisions based on how you think you or your brand will be perceived, then this is a destructive reputation coming into play. This is sure to prevent you and your company from growth. 

Easier said than done, no? 

I can appreciate that this is easier said than done. I know I’ve struggled in the past with being a people-pleaser, and as a result, I would find myself getting anxious if I felt like I’d would have disappointed people. If you’re like me, then I can tell you with utmost confidence, just like most things, you can grow out of this and develop confidence in your core values and character without worrying about what others will think of your decisions. 

I’ve come to realize that when you make a decision based on facts, an objective assessment of the situation, and of course, integrity, and whilst being true to your character, then you can move forward with clarity. If you’re unsure – ask yourself two interlocked questions: (1) have I assessed the situation? (2) does this decision conflict with any of my core values?

If you’re still unsure, then think of someone whose moral judgment you respect. What would that person do?

But Sammy – reputation is your currency. Surely this is important?

Yes – your reputation is important and it is something to be proud of.  It’s making reputation precede character that will get you in trouble. In other words, it’s making others’ perception of you dictate your decisions that gets dangerous. 

As John Wooden puts it perfectly:  “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” 

by Sammy Al-Sitaro

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