Managing Perceptions: View Misperceptions as Opportunities

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Leaders typically respond to their own misperceptions with some mixture of defensiveness and embarrassment. That’s natural enough. No one wants to appear stupid. Revealingly, they respond to others’ misperceptions with less respect for their feelings. Leaders usually react with annoyance and frustration when their colleagues haven’t paid attention or when they pass along unsubstantiated gossip. Leaders often allow themselves to become indignant when others trade in intentional misinformation or expose their deep convictions that leaders can never be trusted.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Misperceptions—and their maddening relatives, perceived misperceptions—play significant roles in how we perceive others and how they perceive us. Some misperceptions can be convincingly demonstrated to be wrong. This is the great value of data. Confronted by the data, people will sometimes modify their misperceptions on the spot. More often, we see what we want to see. We can always find data to support our views. For these more or less fixed beliefs, viewing them as different perceptions instead of misperceptions is a more helpful approach. No matter how you view them and how you deal with them, conflicting perceptions or misperceptions are opportunities to clarify, to understand and to modify your approach as a leader.

How can you do it?

Admit your own. Before you attack others’ misperceptions, admit that we all have our perceptions and that a fair number of yours have turned out to be wrong over the years.

Invite others to share their perceptions. Don’t fall into the trap of labeling them as misperceptions from the start.

Recognize that many people are hesitant to share their perceptions openly. They don’t want to appear foolish. They don’t want to hurt others’ feelings. They don’t want to be accountable for what they think and feel.

Ask people about what other people think. This is fascinating. Most folks will eagerly tell you what their colleagues think. They will often put their thoughts in their friends’ mouths.

However you learn what people believe, think and feel, prepare to be grateful and accepting. Don’t react with annoyance or condescension. This measured response will take some thought and practice. Human beings are wired to defend what they perceive. Leaders are wired that way too.

How have you successfully managed misperceptions by viewing them as opportunities instead of problems?

Managing Perceptions: Acknowledge Yours

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Leaders regularly fall into this trap. Their perceptions are reasonable and correct. The perceptions of those who disagree with them are unreasonable and false. Leaders are usually hesitant to admit that their perceptions are only perceptions. What they think is what any right-minded person should think. If it never occurs to the leader that her perceptions are just perceptions and not the gospel, she is not going to be inclined to admit that openly. Leaders want to feel certain. They don’t want to appear weak. But arrogance is not a leadership strength. It is a defense against feelings of inferiority. And everyone but the defender can smell that.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

We all have perceptions. We all believe things that do not turn out to be true. If you admit your perceptions right up front, it makes others feel better about admitting theirs and disagreeing with you. Your openness will invite everyone to question why we feel the ways we do. It will focus your conversations on data instead of opinion. It will encourage honesty and a search for different perspectives instead of fostering groupthink. Your willingness to admit you may be mistaken will nurture constructive conflict and innovative thinking, always good things in a learning organization.

How can you do it?

Recognize the temptation to be dogmatic. When you find yourself saying, “Here’s the deal,” you should recognize that you’re in trouble already. When you preface a statement with, “Clearly . . . ,” you have made a dangerous assumption that what you think is clearly true really is.

Correct yourself mid-sentence. When you catch yourself making an assertion of truth, pause and rephrase the statement with the qualifier, “It is my perception that . . .”

Stop and ask your audience whether they have the same perceptions. Often they will. This creates powerful common ground. When they don’t, your respectful question gives you a chance to modify your approach before you’ve triggered their defenses. When you have made others defensive, you’ve at least temporarily lost your opportunity to bring them around to your point of view.

Admit that your perceptions may be mistaken. Is this so hard? Being mistaken is a golden opportunity to learn.

Invite people to share conflicting perceptions. But don’t stop there. Explore the reasons for these perceptions. Conflicting perceptions create real world laboratories for learning.

How do you acknowledge your perceptions?

Managing Perceptions: Respect Their Power

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

There are two kinds of leaders who instinctively underestimate the power of perceptions. First, there are the skeptics. They are interested in the evidence. They are not inclined to believe; they want to know the truth. They take the rational view. They view feelings and perceptions—including their own—as mere emotional drivel that cannot be trusted. Then there are the demagogues. They take their own perceptions very seriously, but they devalue the perceptions of others. These leaders are not engaged in a search for truth. They have no interest in dialog. They just want their way. And those with conflicting perceptions are in their way.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

You may have already realized that people are primarily driven by emotion, not reason. People long to be moved, not persuaded. And what feels right is right for such folks. They feel and believe and act on their perceptions without giving much thought to whether their perceptions are accurate. Successful leaders recognize the power of perceptions and respect them accordingly. They seek to understand them, they use them and sometimes challenge them, but they never underestimate their power.

How can you do it?

Admit your own. Instead of dogmatically stating, “This is the way it is,” preface your opinion with, “It is my perception that . . .” This approach signals others that you are open to considering differing perceptions.

Seek to understand others’ perceptions. Genuine curiosity is disarming. If people conclude you want to understand them, they are usually inclined to help you do that. If they sense you are dismissive, they will become defensive. Once people become defensive, changing their minds is pretty much out of the question.

Accept them. This is hard particularly when you know that the evidence does not support their perceptions. For example, a number of nice people sincerely believe they have been abducted by aliens. Resist the tendency to argue with them. You will not change their minds. Just accept their feelings and move on to something about which you can both agree.

Explore how others’ perceptions arose. Gently and respectfully inquire about the reasons they feel the way they do. If you do this skillfully, they may start to examine the basis for their perceptions for themselves.

Connect perceptions and behavior. This will help both of you understand why you react in a particular way. And it is generally easier to change behavior than perceptions. That is not to say it is easy.

Thank people for sharing their perceptions with you. Leaders forget this important step all the time. Our perceptions are at the core of who we are, and admitting and sharing them is risky. Let others know you appreciate their openness.

How do you respect the power of perceptions in your everyday interactions with your colleagues?

Managing Perceptions: The Leadership Challenge

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Perceptions are powerful things. They are so powerful that leaders often remind themselves and others that, “Perception is reality.” Like most comforting clichés there is much truth in it, but it is not entirely true. If it were, there would be no need for words like “misperception,” “illusion,” or “delusion.” Leaders recognize the truth; perception is reality (sometimes).

We all have our perceptions. They influence how we feel and act. Perceptions both derive from and shape our basic values, attitudes and beliefs. Most of our assumptions in life are perception-based. They are enmeshed in our unconscious minds where they mold our personalities and influence the ways we express ourselves and view others. And perceptions are stealthy. They attack without warning. We often don’t see our perceptions or recognize their impact on the way we view our world. We suspect that others’ views are contaminated by their perceptions, but we are clueless about our own. If others see things the way we do, we are reassured.  When they see things differently, we deride their perceptions as immature, silly or even delusional. Can you appreciate the confounding complexity here? We have perceptions about perceptions. It’s no wonder that some have questioned whether reality even exists outside the minds of perceivers. Serious leaders take perceived reality seriously but they understand that reality is more than perception.

Heady reflections notwithstanding, leaders spend their entire careers picking their way through minefields of perceptions. Leaders cannot hope to succeed at persuading others to follow them unless they can learn to recognize and manage perceptions including their own.

The blog entries that follow will attempt to describe some practical ways leaders can achieve this. Like every other leadership skill, this requires interest, intent and practice. Some of us are naturally better at it, but we can all improve our perception-management skills. This is no academic exercise. Your skill at dealing effectively with perceptions will have a great deal to do with how you turn out as a leader. Please join the conversation. Share your perceptions. Consider others’. Learn to manage perceptions instead of letting them manage you.

Project Managemet: Feedback Loop

What are the barriers to properly creating a feedback loop? 

A feedback loop doesn’t contribute to the actual project at hand. Therefore, its value isnt in what it brings to the current project, but to future projects. This lack of present value will cause some to question its necessity.

Why is it important to properly create a feedback loop?

A feedback loop is a tool used to collect data from customers and stakeholders that will help improve future processes. It is real, timely, and honest input from customers about how the project was managed as well as satisfaction with the end product.

How can you successfully create a feedback loop?

Know your audienice. Understand who has the feedback you want. Identify those key stakeholders and engage with them.

Seek input. Ask for honest feedback. Have thick enough skin to receive the feedback for  its constructive value.

Take action. Implement the necessary changes based on the feedback. 

How can you use a feedback loop to imrpove results? 


Project Management: Closing out the Project

What are the barriers to properly closing out a project?

With almost all of the project in the rear view mirror, it’s easy to be tempted to coast across the finish line. A desire to move on to whatever is next can sometimes get in the way of properly closing out a project.

Why is it important to properly close out the project?

The project close out is an important final step because it closes out any remaining items related to the project. Closing out a project communicates to owners and stakeholders that you are committed to every aspect of the project and instills confidence in a job well done. It is the final act that punctuates a project.

How can you successfully close out a project?

Request. Communicate with stakeholders and see if there are any open issues on their end that you can take care of.

Review. Evaluate your scope and deliverables to make sure you met your goals.

Report. Provide a close out report to the owners. This should include any important project related documents.

How can you use these steps to close out your projects? 

Project Management: The Punchlist

What are the barriers to properly executing a punch list?

As it is with so many other areas of the project, time is a commodity that is in short supply towards the end of a project. This is the primary reason that a punchlist is often not performed or underperformed.

Why is it important to exedute a punch list?

The punchlist is your final checklist for the project. Completing it is important to make sure that your project is as complete as it can be. It is important to include representatives from the stakeholders, management and the implementation team in this process.  The key step is not making the list; it is competing the tasks on the punchlist. This ensures an acceptable final product.

How can you successfully achieve substantial completion?

Gather.  Gather your entire team together to review the current status of the project.

Go over. Make a list of any outstanding items that must be completed in order I close out the project.  

Get it done. Now complete the tasks on the list. This execution step is the key component to the punchlist process. 

How can you use the punchlist process to deliver a better project?

Project Management: Achieving Substantial Completion

What are the barriers to properly achieving substantial completion?

Hang in there! You are almost there! Your project is nearing completion, but you want to finish strong. It can be tempting to start to let loose of the reigns as the project moves into the 11th hour. You might become less diligent in your previously scheduled tasks such as communicating, coordinating, or tracking key metrics.

Why is it important to achieve substantial completion?

Substantial completion is the point in time in which the project is complete “enough” to begin the project closeout phase. Depending on your project type, substantial completion will often result in either limited implementation or beta deployment. This allows you to begin moving towards your final goal. This will be characterized in many different ways depending on your project, but it might look like some of the following things: moving into a new building, launching a new program or software, deploying a new process.

How can you successfully achieve substantial completion?

Communicate. Keep key stakeholders and leaders in the loop regularly. Stick  to the frequencies and methods you agreed to at the beginning of your project.

Coordinate. Work closely with everyone who you will need in order to complete your project. Maintain consistency in the timing and methods you utilize to accomplish this.

Collect. Measure key data to evaluate the performance of your project.

How can you use these concepts to help achieve substantial completion?

Project Management: Change Management

What are the barriers to properly handling change in the project?

Changes always come at a cost. The cost can be quantified in one of three categories: hard dollar costs, schedule delays, or decreased quality in the the final product. On their own, none of these are desirable outcomes. Therefore, managing change within a project can be a complex task.

Why is change management an important function?

While changes result in more work (especially paper work), they are often necessary and relatively unavoidable. If the change is necessary to deliver a better end product, then we must have a system to evaluate the potential change as well as manage the impacts of the change to the project scope.

How can you succesfully manage changes in scope?

Evaluate potential changes. All proposed changes should present a net additional value to the end product that outweighs the costs necessary to execute the change.

Discuss with stakeholders. All changes that impact stakeholders should be discussed with them before given final approval.

Execute the change. Once you’ve determined that the proposed change adds value and the necessary stakeholders are on board, it’s time to implement the change.

How can you use these concepts to better handle change management within a project? 

Project Management: Data Capture

What are the barriers to capturing data?

In an environment where the key driver is usually progress towards completion, taking time and expending energy to count things might not always seem like the best use of time.

Why is data capture an important function?

Put simply, measuring your progress is integral to properly evaluating your progress. Every project is built on presumptions about items such as cost, schedule and resource allocation. These were the tenants of the case that was made to obtain approval to begin the project. Therefore, we must develop methods of capturing data to compare our performance with our projections. The goal isn’t just completion, but to be successful, we must achieve this within the framework of the metrics we have chosen to measure.

How can you succesfully capture data?

Define your data. At the outset, establish what metrics you will track. Each project will have different indicators that are important to evaluating its success.

Collect your data. Some data will be readily available and other data will not. Processes need to be implemented to facilitate the routine collection of the metrics identified in step one.

Evaluate your data. Evaluating the numbers is the most objective analysis you have of your performance. Use it to guide your decision making as the project progresses.

How can you use these concepts to improve data collecation and performance?