Perception & Reality: Things aren’t Always as they Seem

As a leader, it is absolutely vital to remain open-minded: to understanding that your perception of how things are, probably is not the same as the perceptions of your co-workers, your boss, or your customers.

In this post I outline why this will be a stumbling block to you becoming an exceptional leader unless you can overcome it, and set out five actions you can take to improve the quality of your own perception.

Cognitive Psychology & Perception

The world is complex, and our brains are exceptionally skilful at filtering out unnecessary information, and making cognitive shortcuts:  this is (more or less) like that, so it must be the same, equals no need to ‘think’ too hard about it.  “Nothing to see here”.  I have talked before about the dangers of decision making on autopilot, but another danger created by our cognitive-blind-spots is that we naturally assume that the people around us are interpreting the world in the same way we are.  We accept our interpretations of events as facts about those events, because it is simpler and less confronting to do so.  And, because facts are not contentious or subject to interpretation, we assign our perceptions to others.Perception vs Reality

What does this mean in the work place?

I have a handful of examples:

  • A leader feels she has explained something numerous times to her staff, BUT her staff feel like they’ve heard multiple things, and none of them were quite the same (=confused)
  • Two employees receive the same instruction, BUT have different interpretations of what the boss has requested (=conflict/frustration)
  • An employee has escalated a major issue that is going to cause significant harm to the organisation, BUT the manager has heard about a couple of minor problems that indicate the employee isn’t coping with his or her job (=disengagement/decline in trust)
  • HR introduces a new policy to support managers to make effective hiring decisions, BUT busy managers see it as another annoying piece of bureaucracy getting in the way of them doing their jobs properly (=frustration/low compliance)
  • Management introduces a new reporting framework to better understand the business and identify examples of successful practice so that others can learn from it, BUT employees see it as another useless report that isn’t used (=low compliance/disengagement), OR is being used to monitor performance because managers don’t understand the job well enough (=decline in trust)

And here’s the rub:  perception is reality.  If the other party perceives it that way, it is their facts.

Anticipating & Correcting Differences in Perception

Step One: Maintain an Open Mind

I have an enduring memory of my ‘four or five year old self’ having a deep and very existential thought one evening on my way to feed the dog.  The kennel was a distance from the house, and I would carry out the dog meat each evening as part of my household chores.  It was twilight, and I looked up at the darkening sky and a thought just popped into my head:  “how do I know I am me?”Open Mind

Fast-forward thirty-(mumble-mumble) years and I remain intrigued by this question.  I still don’t know the answer, but I’m slightly more confident about the permanence of this reality (whatever it is) than I was then.

Whenever I am facing a tricky situation at work or at home, I try to draw on the sense of naive wonder that a child has when encountering something new.  I embrace the concept that the way I see something might not be how it appears to others.

I tell myself: “This is not the only way this can be interpreted”.

Step Two: Explore Alternative Possibilities

Whenever you experience a disconnect – a niggly sense that something isn’t quite going as you expected it to – pause and reflect.Alternative Realities

How could this situation be interpreted by someone else?  In ‘IT speak’, develop some user cases: the sensitive over-thinker, the new employee who doesn’t know how things work round here, the Type-A over-achiever, Bob from Accounts…  It doesn’t really matter how many or who (or even whether they are real or fictional) the point is, you are actively engaging your brain in the process of reassessing the situation through the eyes of someone else.

Do not judge the correctness of these alternative interpretations – but use them to improve the depth of your own perception.

Step Three: Communicate with Openness

When you engage, do so in a way that leaves open the possibility that there may be alternative interpretations.  You can do this without seeming wishy-washy or indecisive by using phrases like:

  • Based on my understanding of what has occurred…
  • I’d love to hear alternative views…
  • It seems the problem we’re all trying to solve is… do you agree?

This opens others up to the possibility that you accept there is more than one approach – its a type of priming.  If you can, close with a similar statement – as this means the last thing they remember hearing is you entertaining alternative options.

Step Four: Seek Feedback and Confirmation

And then go one step further.  Actually ask questions to assist you in figuring out whether you are both on the same page, especially in a one-on-one situation.  Don’t be patronising – but genuine:  “I’m concerned we have both interpreted the problem slightly differently, could you help me understand how you see it?”

And then you need to listen carefully and actively, and with an open mind (see Step One!) We all suffer from a tendency known as confirmation bias – we naturally seek out others who see things the way we do, and we find it hard to relate to someone whose views are different from our own.

Seek out differing opinions and listen with curiosity.  Who knows – you might learn something!

Step Five:  Accept You Will Get It Wrong

Kathryn Schulz has written a brilliant book about this called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.  It is lighthearted and delightful, and celebrates the idea that you actually don’t want or need to be right all the time.

Great learning and growth lies on the other side of a mistake – so embrace it – safe in the knowledge that others might not perceive it as an error at all!

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