‘Managing Perceptions’ Category


Managing Perceptions: Contain Your Defensiveness

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

When leaders are attacked, it is normal to become defensive. Leaders believe they are well-intentioned, bright people who are trying to do the right thing. When others accuse them of being short-sighted, muddle-headed and worse, no reasonable person should expect those leaders to remain detached, calm and gratefully receptive to such stinging attacks.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

But that is what people expect their leaders to do. Whether you realized it or not, that is exactly what you signed up for when you accepted a leadership position. People don’t care how you feel. They care how they feel. They expect you to ignore your feelings and attend to theirs. The best leaders recognize this and throttle their natural defensiveness in their efforts to manage perceptions more effectively.

How can you do it?

Face the reality that this is your job. If you keep on trying to prop up your self-esteem by the longed-for admiration of those you are leading, you are headed for early burnout.

Recognize your defensiveness. These reactions are strong and commanding. When you come under fire for the first year or so, you will have already returned fire before you realize you are feeling defensive.

Practice. Ask your colleagues to help you prepare. Ask them to give you their best shots. As a leader, you’ve got to learn to absorb some bruising hits and keep on leading.

How have you managed perceptions effectively by controlling your own defensiveness?

 

Managing Perceptions: Welcome Conflicting Perceptions

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Leaders are impatient by nature. Like everyone else in the world, they want what they want when they want it. And what they want is for others to think the way they want them to think and to do what they want them to do.  This posture does not incline leaders to see value in having people disagree. Leaders who just want to get on with it do not welcome the delays that conflict produces.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

But conflict can be a very good thing. Those who disagree with you are more likely to see the holes in your case. They may force you to consider consequences you never considered, possible barriers you haven’t seen. If you cannot overcome their negative perceptions with convincing rebuttals, how can you expect to persuade the quiet resisters to follow you?

How can you do it?

Anticipate conflicting perceptions. Whatever perception you attempt to manage, you can bet that others will work hard to out-manage you. If you deal with conflicting perceptions up front, you will minimize the damage they will cause later if you leave such issues unaddressed.

Accept others’ feelings. If you try to manage others’ perceptions before you acknowledge the legitimacy of their feelings, this rookie move will result in your immediate checkmate.

Thank dissenters for their courage. It is not easy to speak forthrightly to power. Leaders cannot please everyone. People understand this. But they want to have their say and they want to be heard, understood and taken seriously. That is not too much to ask, is it?

How have you managed perceptions effectively by inviting conflicting perceptions?

Managing Perceptions: Explain Your Own Perceptions

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Like everyone else, leaders naturally assume their perceptions are reality. Others have perceptions. Leaders think they see things the way they really are. This is nonsense of course, but the illusion of power blinds leaders to the obvious.  Such arrogance inclines leaders to mismanage perceptions from the start.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

If you cannot successfully manage your own perceptions, you cannot manage others’. When you begin the discussion about perceptions by admitting that your perceptions are just perceptions too, you create an environment of acceptance and openness. Your perceptions are no more valid or important than theirs. In this context, everyone can move on to examining the reasons for everyone’s perceptions. Anytime you can move the discussion from opinions to the underlying reasons for those opinions, you are well on your way to successfully managing opinions.

How can you do it?

Clarify their perceptions first. When you raise the issue and ask for their perceptions about it, it is likely that at least some of them will share your perceptions. If you lead with what you think, you will trigger an instinctive defensiveness you might have avoided altogether.

Wait until you are asked. If you wait until others ask what you think, they will be much more inclined to listen nonjudgmentally.

Admit that your perceptions are just perceptions at this point.  Make it clear that you are open to changing your perceptions based on a compelling case for a different point of view. This is so reasonable a stance that no one can disagree with it publicly without appearing injudicious. Anytime you can take the reasonable high ground that is the leadership sweet spot.

How have you managed perceptions by admitting your own?

Managing Perceptions: Build and Sustain Relationships

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Building and sustaining relationships demand time and energy. Most leaders are focused on their goals and the tasks that they believe will help them achieve them. In this frenzied pursuit, they are always looking for shortcuts. And getting people to do what they want them to do without having to wade through the relationship muck is always a tempting shortcut. Just telling people what to do is so much easier.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Communication, while always a challenge, is more effective in the context of a relationship. When people are able to communicate clearly, they are more likely to be open about their perceptions and more willing to change their perceptions when they realize they are not accurate.

How can you do it?

Recognize that your relationships are the keys to managing perceptions. People are going to form perceptions no matter what. If they have no relationship with you, they will assume the worst about your motives when forming their perceptions.

Focus on relationships with opinion leaders. Time will not permit you to build and sustain close relationships with everyone. Focus on those colleagues who will leverage their relationships with others in the pursuit of your mutual goals.

Create opportunities for new leaders to get to know you. Every leader quickly gets a reputation that is accepted unquestioningly by new leaders. Those perceptions are often inaccurate. Only when new leaders get to know you are they likely to modify their perceptions based on what they have heard.

How have you used relationships to manage perceptions more effectively?

Managing Perceptions: Get Them on the Record

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

In the context of conflict, leaders often miss this critical step. It is hard to think clearly when under attack. The leader’s natural response is to duck, cover and counterpunch. Becoming angry and defensive is natural and understandable. When aroused, leaders don’t think clearly. They forget that carefully documenting others’ perceptions is the first step to managing them.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

When you expose perceptions to the light of public scrutiny, those perceptions are often revealed to be outrageous or unreasonable. When your critics are just opining irresponsibly with no need to be reasonable or accountable, they say all kinds of ridiculous things. When you put them on the record, their unreasonableness will be apparent to everyone. By exposing them, you will have done what every leader is supposed to do—attach unpleasant consequences to inappropriate behavior.

How can you do it?

Go to the source. Your critics will say the most outrageous things behind your back in situations where they are confident no one will hold them accountable for the allegations they make and the ridiculous conclusions they draw. Trash talking is one of our favorite pastimes.

Take notes. When they see you are recording what they say, the unreasonable people will usually deny what they previously said or refuse to go on the record. If they refuse to take a public position, any credibility they might have had with the reasonable people is toast. This limits their organizational impact to their small group of trash-talking friends.

Arrange for a witness. You may have noticed that a good many people are two-faced. People say all kinds of things, but when your confront them with it, they blithely deny they ever said such a thing. You have probably already been burned by such behavior many times.

How have you arranged to get unreasonable perceptions on the record?

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?