Perceptions Are Everything: Manage Yours Wisely
President Obama took heavy criticism for playing golf last month during his vacation after denouncing the militant who executed American journalist James Foley. In an interview on Meet the Press, he acknowledged that his timing could have been better. “I should have anticipated the optics”, he said and then added, “Part of the job is managing the theater of it”. What you may not appreciate is that this incident offers a big lesson not only to politicians but to every leader. The bottom line is that what matters is not so much what you do, but what people think you have done. Perception is reality.
The perceptions that your team and your patients have of you are often more important than who you are. How you are seen and what you actually do are not always the same. This means that you ought to manage your image and reputation as well as your actual work because perceptions are lasting. This isn’t marketing spin but hard science.
Within seconds of meeting someone, we make an impression on that person. Once people form an impression of us they stop actively gathering new information. You see, humans assimilate new information that is consistent with their initial perception. Think about this in terms of meeting a new patient. What image are you projecting and is it consistent with how you want to be seen? Are you building the professional ‘brand’ you want to build?
Patients form opinions about you from the moment they enter your office. Even on a subconscious level they are evaluating you when they talk with the employee at the Front Desk. They make assumptions about you based on the furnishings in the waiting area. And without a doubt, your patients are assessing your value to them based on how you interact with them. The things you may consider small are actually quite big. What someone else sees as THEIR reality may not be yours. However, it would be a mistake to ignore or dismiss their reality completely.
Of course, the perception that people have of you varies and depends on the situation, the setting in which you are operating, and your relationship with those who are observing you. But if you are in a leadership role, expectations increase substantially. We hold leaders up to higher standards.
It's hard work to remain conscious of others’ perceptions. We judge ourselves by our intentions, but fail to realize that our intentions are clothed in temperament, personality and attitudes. When I'm pressured for time, I'm more direct and impatient. I tend to forget about the importance of asking vs. telling. Once my husband stood at military attention and saluted me with a ‘Yes ma’am’. My intention was to get everything done before our dinner guests arrived but my impact was that of a drill sergeant.
And yes, I often see "leaders" who think they are doing a better job than the team thinks. All of this demonstrates the fundamental flaw in communications: People hear and see whatever is important to them. To be an effective leader means you must first know yourself and then consider your audience. What do you know about how others see you? How could you find out? Ask for feedback.
Unfortunately, direct, honest feedback is in short supply in many organizations. Most employees are reluctant to give feedback to their boss, especially if it’s not positive. For this reason, one of the best ways to ‘measure’ perceptions is to do a “360”. As the term implies, it means going full circle. Also known as multi-rater feedback, 360 surveys are collected electronically and with confidentiality. For feedback raters to be candid, they must have anonymity. The survey questions in a 360 cover a broad range of leadership behaviors. The person receiving feedback also fills out a self-rating survey that includes the same questions that others receive. In this way ‘self’ perceptions are compared with ‘other’ perceptions. The aggregate summary report is usually interpreted with a facilitator who is trained in the tool. The outcome is information about whether intentions are matching impact. That is, do others see you as you see yourself? Do others see you the way you want to be seen?
In a nutshell, perception management is the ability to create an impression through conscious activities. This is not manipulation but an essential skill for influencing others. If you are going to lead people, you must know the effect that stress has on you and how this looks to others. Remember that building self-awareness requires courage, commitment, and support. Increase your awareness and be more attentive to your audience. Learn to interpret other people’s verbal and nonverbal signals. And let me know if I can help.
In my next article: How to correct negative perceptions.
Dr. Haller provides training for leadership effectiveness, interpersonal communication, conflict management, and team building. If you would like to learn more contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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