Managing Perceptions: Act in Spite of Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Leaders who need to be loved have a terrible time making unpopular decisions. They waste enormous time and energy explaining, pleading and postponing important decisions, pointlessly longing for consensus, approval and understanding. Their unwillingness to act in spite of others’ disapproval paralyzes them.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

To lead successfully, you must live and prosper in the gray zone between the extremes of universal love and hate. You must listen carefully, weigh the pros and cons dispassionately, make the case as best you can and then decide. You will often not be able to publicly reveal the facts behind your decisions. And ignorant people are especially opinionated. You won’t enjoy taking heat for your decisions, but you will understand this is the price successful leaders pay.

How can you do it?

Announce that you are going to make a decision. This signals everyone that the painful uncertainty will not last forever. People don’t like change; they hate uncertainty even more.

State the obvious. If you can’t reveal confidential information, say that. Admit that everyone will not be pleased with the outcome while reminding your stakeholders that when a tough call must be made, someone must make it.

Ask for understanding. Reasonable people will readily admit they may not know all the facts and that their perceptions may be mistaken. If you develop a reputation for deciding deliberately and fairly, most people will cut you some slack even when they strongly disagree with your decision.

What practical strategies have helped you make difficult decisions in spite of others’ misperceptions?

Managing Perceptions: Welcome Opposition

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

No leader naturally enjoys opposition. When leaders make up their minds that something needs to be accomplished, they want to get it done as quickly and with as little effort as possible and settle back into the comfort zone. Leaders long for comfort just like everyone else. Opposition prolongs their discomfort and delays their gratification.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Opposition is an acquired taste. You will come to appreciate opposition when you realize it makes you better, tougher and more thoughtful. You will come to look forward to opposition as the best way to test your mettle and to identify the weaknesses in your case.

How can you do it?

Anticipate it. You can usually depend on some opposition to any change you propose. If you begin planning for opposition from the start, you will be more prepared to deal with it effectively when it appears.

Invite it. You are human. Once you’ve made up your mind, you instinctively dismiss the arguments against your position. When you invite people to attack your argument your openness will diminish your natural defensiveness.

Accept its legitimacy. Don’t pander to your critics. Admit they are asking questions that need to be asked and answered. Welcoming opposition means taking it seriously and learning from it.

How have you used opposition to make a better case and become a better leader?

Managing Perceptions: Find the Common Ground

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Leaders’ brains function just like all other human brains. Our brains are belief engines. For a variety of reasons, conscious and unconscious, leaders take positions and then look for the “facts” that support their conclusions. And they ignore or reject the arguments against what they believe. This is the way we are all built. The best leaders can do is recognize that tendency in themselves and in others and compensate for this genetic trait.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

If you remain focused on rejecting your critics’ questions and arguments, you will completely miss the common ground you might share with them. And this is a serious leadership mistake. Finding common ground is always the first step in clarifying others’ perceptions, changing misperceptions and moving forward in spite of those conflicting perceptions that can never be fully resolved.

How can you do it?

Look for it. You will need to be deliberate about this. You can always find some common ground. If you did not, it means you did not look hard enough.

Begin by accepting your critics’ perceptions as legitimate and understandable. You stand no chance of changing people’s minds if you insist that their perceptions, questions and objections are stupid.

Invest the time and energy to do this right. This is not a management step to rush through. Write the common ground down so others can see that you are sincere about finding it and open to others’ perceptions.

How have you successfully found the common ground while attempting to manage others’ perceptions?

Managing Perceptions: Invite People to Challenge Yours

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Once leaders decide to pursue a goal, they go into sales mode. They are convinced and they believe others should be convinced too.  These impatient leaders are on a mission. They don’t have time to listen to the naysayers. They just want people to get on board and get it done.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

When presented with a new idea, most people start in the unconvinced mode. Here’s the deal. If you conclude that you must convince people to agree with you to succeed, you will fail most of the time. Instead, you must find a way to get them to convince themselves. And the best way to accomplish that is by inviting them to find the weaknesses in your argument and thinking of the rebuttals themselves. You can trigger this natural tendency to disagree by pointing out the weaknesses in your case first. When you hear others making the case for you, stop persuading and don’t gloat by pointing out what just happened. You will be sorely tempted.

How can you do it?

Clarify the problem. If you can’t persuade your colleagues that there is a problem that must be solved, that’s a problem. When everyone agrees there is a problem, you can all focus on what the problem actually is. (The actual problem may not turn out to be what you thought it was at first.) This is not as simple and straightforward as it sounds.

List the possible solutions. You will be able to engage people in these first two steps fairly easily. People like to talk about problems and possible solutions.

Explore everyone’s perceptions. This step is more challenging. Opinions about the best solution may vary widely. These differing perceptions naturally lead to examining the perceived pros and cons of each possibility. When you express your views, if you begin by saying, “It’s my perception…,” your colleagues will feel free to share their own and to challenge yours. This gentle invitation may result in their endorsing your perceptions. The most skilled leaders manage perceptions by treating them as perceptions, not facts. If you present your perceptions as established truths, your listeners will take the same view of theirs. Once you and others have cemented your perceptions into facts, managing them will become much more difficult.

How have you successfully managed others’ perceptions by inviting others to challenge yours?

Managing Perceptions: Undermine Them with Self-Deprecating Humor

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

When confronted by criticism, whether reasonable or unreasonable, becoming defensive is the expected response. It is hard to see much humor in being attacked, to poke fun at oneself when angry. When leaders learn that others perceive them much differently than they perceive themselves, they are inclined to dismiss others’ perceptions as unreasonable, unfounded or malicious. When leaders persist in responding in these ways, they are unlikely to see the opportunity to disarm their critics with self-deprecating humor.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

But the opportunity to poke fun at yourself is always there, camouflaged among the shades of your resentment, hidden in plain sight. When you acknowledge your understanding of others’ perceptions by admitting that your behaviors might have contributed to them, your listeners will find your honesty and good humor disarming. They might even laugh out loud. And it is hard to continue feeling critical when you are laughing.

How can you do it?

Clarify others’ perceptions first. Don’t assume. Don’t argue. Don’t dismiss them. You can’t manage perceptions until you understand and accept them.

Take responsibility for their perceptions. I know this goes against the grain. You just did your best to communicate clearly. Your intentions were honorable. But if you don’t take responsibility for their perceptions, you will never be able to change them.

Apologize that you inadvertently misled them. You didn’t mean to; you just didn’t communicate clearly. This has been a problem for you before. Tell a true short stories about one of your flawed and funny communication failures in the past. You get the point. Self-deprecating humor never hurts and often helps.

How have you undermined negative perceptions with self-deprecating humor?

Managing Perceptions: Leverage Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Passionate leaders see opportunities where others see only problems.  Faced with colleagues whose perceptions are markedly different from theirs, insecure leaders typically make one of two mistakes: They may conclude that others’ perceptions are insurmountable barriers and give up. At the other extreme, they may waste time and energy attempting to change perceptions that are already petrified. When people promote their perceptions to convictions, they are no longer open to a different point of view.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

You can leverage others’ perceptions even when you don’t agree with them. You can use their perceptions to make your case by acknowledging their perspectives and then offering a compelling rebuttal. By highlighting the differences in your points of view, you will invite undecided colleagues to choose sides based on the merits of the opposing arguments. In the contest between reasonable and unreasonable people, most people will eventually agree with the reasonable crowd because they don’t want to be viewed as unreasonable themselves. If you are not perceived as reasonable most of the time, you will not be very effective as a leader.

How can you do it?

Clarify others’ perceptions up front. Don’t make the mistake of assuming what others perceive, feel or believe. They will promptly use your mistaken conclusions against you.

Admit that reasonable people often have different perceptions. Be careful not to challenge the perceiver, just the perception.

Use others’ perceptions as leverage. Sometimes, you should just admit they are right and thank them for setting you straight. Sometimes you can make a compelling case their perceptions are, in fact, misperceptions. Sometimes you can use their perceptions to point out the contrast between their case and yours.

How have you successfully leveraged others’ perceptions?

Managing Perceptions: Appeal to Open-Mindedness and Fairness

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Faced with colleagues who have made up their minds and do not wish to entertain another perspective, most leaders will be tempted to give up. Insecure people are comforted by certainty. They need to feel they are right and everyone else is wrong. They have joined a belief tribe, and they feel they must defend that tribe at all costs. Make no mistake. If you disagree with these people, you are the enemy.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

But not everyone has drunk the Kool-Aid. There are always those who are open to another point of view, even anxious to hear it. If you don’t make the opposing argument, the undecided folks will assume there is no such case to be made. Failure to seize this opening will be an opportunity lost. The logical folks take pride in being open-minded and thoughtful. They want to be fair. They want to hear both sides before making up their minds. They are not impressed by stridency. They are impressed by a reasonable and non-judgmental approach.

How can you do it?

Admit that honorable people may have a different perspective. The last thing you want to do when you are hoping to make an opposing case is raise hackles. When a leader makes thoughtful people defensive, the case is lost.

Ask for permission to make your case. Seek a fair hearing and thoughtful consideration instead of blind allegiance. Admit that people are going to make up their minds on their own. Strive to be heard, not to sell.

Begin by admitting the strong questions your opponents have raised. This demonstrates the sense of fairness and open mindedness you hope others will extend to you. This approach does not weaken your case. It strengthens it.

Offer a reasonable rebuttal. Do not make it personal. Do not lampoon your opponents as the village idiots. Seek only a fair hearing.

Ask for consideration. Do not demand a decision on the spot. Ask people to reflect and support the side with the better case.

Thank them for the opportunity to influence their perceptions. This step is easy to forget, particularly when the decision does not go your way. But there will be other opportunities to persuade, and you will want to be invited to make your case again. Even when people are opposed to your position, you don’t want them to be opposed to you.

How have you successfully appealed to open mindedness and fairness?

Managing Perceptions: Make an Evidence-Based Case

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Unsubstantiated opinions are a lot easier to come by. Thoughtful decisions require thought. Evidence-based decisions require some research and reflection. Such approaches demand time and energy and most leaders don’t love this kind of work. Leaders want to decide and move on. Like everyone else, leaders want things to be easy, simple, quick and fun. Making a compelling case is none of these.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Only the troublemakers are anxious for you to make an impulsive decision. Everyone else is depending on you to remain detached, to ask clarifying questions and to consider the pros and cons carefully. While the unreasonable folk are eager to have you agree with them or do something outrageous so they can disparage you, most of the people you serve expect you to be reasonable. Being reasonable and data-driven is an exceptionally effective leadership strategy. It models appropriate decision making and throws the mischief-makers off balance.

How can you do it?

Stifle your urge to start persuading others right away. When you find yourself selling an idea before you have considered the pros and cons, you are leading impulsively, not intentionally. Train yourself to view your initial passion for or against any proposal as a caution flag.

Invite those with a different perspective to help you identify the pros and cons of an emerging issue. This will not come naturally to you. We really only want to hear the opinions of those who agree with us. Make yourself uncomfortable by consulting with folks who ordinarily disagree with you and your perspectives.

Begin by making the case against doing what you think is best. This will allow you to make a convincing case by addressing the most difficult issues right up front. If it is clear to others that you are being intellectually honest, they will tend to respect that even if only grudgingly.

How have you successfully managed perceptions by making a compelling case?

Managing Perceptions: Manage Negative Opinion Leaders

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Most opinion leaders are opinionated. They have already made up their minds. Opinion leaders don’t generally weigh both sides of the issue or conduct careful research before they announce their conclusions to the world. These are the talk show hosts of the workplace. They are more interested in ratings than in being right. Leaders are understandably hesitant to approach them because they suspect they will not get a fair hearing.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

These partisans are called opinion leaders for a reason. They influence others. It’s true that they have the most impact on the people who feel the same way they do, but they do have an impact. For this reason, you cannot afford to ignore them entirely. Sometimes, you will agree with their views. Sometimes their complaints will help you to leverage the disruptive environment they have created to make some needed change. Most of the time, these folks will lead the opposition. In this case, you must effectively rebut their claims to make a compelling case. In every case, managing the opinion leaders in your work environment is one of the keys to your success as a leader.

How can you do it?

Figure out who they are. These are the people holding forth in the break rooms and dining rooms. They will rarely bring their concerns directly to you. They prefer to talk behind leaders’ backs. They are not interested in having their perceptions challenged by the facts or a different perspective.

Get their position down. You will usually have to piece this together from their listeners. When directly confronted, they will often deny saying what they said.

Don’t take it personally. Being disagreeable is their nature. If you listen carefully, you will discover these people tend to criticize everything and everyone. It’s just who they are.

Thank them for asking the hard questions. They see all the weaknesses in your case. They suspect the worst motives. All of these force you to make a more compelling case. Critics are a blessing. Their contributions do not feel like blessings, but when you reframe them as blessings, you will feel better about their contributions.

How have you successfully managed opinion leaders in your organization?

Managing Perceptions: Become a Truth-Seeker

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Like everyone else, leaders bring their perceptions and biases with them to every meeting. Leaders typically have strong opinions about how things ought to be, and they usually want others to go along with them. Leaders are further handicapped because the people around them are inclined to tell them what they want to hear. Disagreeing with folks in power is not generally viewed as career enhancing. Leaders live farther from the truth than the folks on the front lines. First, powerful people are strongly inclined to delude themselves. Second, the people around them are inclined to play along. And a lot of people like it this way.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

You cannot manage perceptions until you know what they are. And you will never know others’ perceptions unless you convince them that you really want to know. The truth is often unpleasant. A good number of people are not passionate about their work. They don’t have a sense of meaning and purpose, and they don’t care. They just work to pay the bills. They don’t want to win, or stand out or go the extra mile. And they don’t like your pushing them to. Others frankly disagree with your priorities or the ways you go about trying to get things done. Some don’t like your personality. Many will have made up their minds about the kind of person you are based entirely on what others have said about you. Difficult as these perceptions are to hear, they exist. You must acknowledge them and manage them.

How can you do it?

Face the truth yourself. You don’t know what you don’t know. If you persist in believing what you want to believe without recognizing that you are not fully informed and therefore at least partially mistaken, you will never get to the truth.

Make learning the truth your passion. If you are serious about knowing what others think, people will eventually start telling you the truth. People are pretty good about figuring out what leaders really want. If you want to be told what you want to hear, people will sense that and accommodate you.

Thank people for telling you the truth. Honesty is risky and demands uncommon courage. Those who will be truthful are your greatest leadership assets. Let them know how much you appreciate their frankness, even when it stings.

Build relationships with people on the front line. They are living closest to reality. They have the best view of the gap between what reality is and what you want it to be.

Tell the truth yourself. People will never believe you want to hear the truth if they don’t see you speaking the truth. The most important truth you can tell is the truth about yourself. And that’s the hardest truth to tell.

How have you sought and discovered the truth in your work environment?