Perception is a strange thing. Whatever we see in front of us we automatically take to be the truth. Of course, it’s the truth according to our own model of the world around us and is heavily influenced by our own experiences. It’s how we perceive those around us as well as the situations we find ourselves in. So it stands to reason that people around us have the same limitations in what they see. They can’t perceive things in the same way we do.
When people have different perceptions on the same situation difficulties can arise on deciding ‘what needs to be done’ or whether there is something to worry about or not. Have you ever been in a situation where you thought that something needed to be done but someone else argued against it because it wasn’t necessary? “It’ll be alright on the night” springs to mind.
What is happening here is a conflict of perceptions. What you see as something that needs to be attended to according to your experiences is something that is of little or no consequence based on that other person’s experiences.
Open and honest dialogue between the two of you ought to be able to overcome this and a common understanding of what you are both viewing is the obvious way forward. But this doesn’t always happen. Those life experiences that influence us can be so powerful. It takes quite some argument for us to go against what we perceive to be the truth. Or it takes authority or power to over-rule us and that can have longer-term consequences for any relationship.
In workplace situations this can exhibit itself when senior managers and leaders make decisions that they believe to be right in the face of what appears to be considerable differences of opinion. That leader may well have more appropriate life experiences that enable them to make the right call but this can never be assumed. A leader who assumes they can always make the right call just because they are at the ‘top-of-the-shop’ is one who has become blinded by the power of the position they hold.
So what should leaders and managers do if they start to consider that their perceptions may be getting in the way of or hindering performance? Recognising this is a step in the right direction to becoming a self-aware leader.
A leader who acknowledges that different perceptions are at play and wants to do something about it needs to pay particular attention to three activities:
In any interactions with others or when observing situations from afar you need to see how people react to you and to others around them. Immediate reactions in terms of facial expressions, answers to questions, body language will all tell you something. Reactions coming later such as e-mails, phone calls, other meetings all tell you something about the impact you had.
As well as observing the impact you are having on those around you why not simply ask people? This is the principle of 360° feedback but you need a more fluid response and not something that happens only occasionally and has a built in formality that often puts people off.
Ask people outright if you know them well enough. For others asking questions such as “How did you see that situation?” or “With your experience, what would you suggest?” allow you to uncover the different perceptions at play in your business or team.
Remember that if you are in a position of authority people who work for you may feel uneasy (to start with at least) saying exactly what they think and may tell you what they think you want to hear.
Your own self-awareness will only develop if you take time to reflect on what you are observing and what people are telling you. Are the reactions to what you do and what you say what you expected? Is what you are seeing when watching others respond to things you have said or done in line with your expectations?
You need to ask yourself whether the perceptions of others on shared situations or incidents are similar to yours or whether they are very different. It’s not possible to treat each of the situations you’ve experienced one at a time. Consider them as a whole – what is a week’s worth or a month’s worth of interactions telling you?
Over time you will build an ever-improving picture of how others perceive you and in doing so be better placed to appreciate how others will respond to you. This may not change the decisions you ultimately make but your confidence in having made the best decision you could will increase. And if there are difficulties arising you will be far better placed to recognise and deal with them.