Physician Leadership: Manage Perceptions

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D. 

Why are physician leaders hesitant to do this?

We physicians don’t pay much attention to anyone’s perceptions but our own. We are in demand. Positions are plentiful. Patients line up and wait patiently to see us. When pressed, we will acknowledge that not everyone perceives us favorably. That is their problem. People should not expect a brilliant physician to be nice too. But if you don’t accept others’ perceptions as valid, you cannot hope to manage them.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Successful physician leaders understand that everyone has perceptions and that they matter. They understand that these perceptions can and must be managed. This does not mean that they can change others’ minds completely, but they are confident they can influence and manage the reasonable person’s perceptions.

How can you do it?

1. Recognize that this is your duty as a leader. If you don’t recognize this critical leadership skill as one of your obligations, you will behave just like the typical physician. You will spend most of your emotional energy dismissing others’ perceptions as ridiculous. And you will dig yourself a very big hole.

2. Stop being defensive. Concentrate on indentifying and understanding instead of resenting those who disagree with you. You cannot manage perceptions you don’t recognize or respect.

3. Clarify others’ perceptions. When your colleagues realize you are trying to understand their perspectives, they will be more forthcoming. Once they feel understood and appreciated, they will be more open to considering differing perceptions.

 4. Correct misperceptions. For a variety of understandable reasons, people draw incorrect conclusions all the time. You do too. They may have been given false, misleading or incomplete information. Correct this without condemning their reasoning process. And bear in mind that, sadly, beliefs are stronger than facts.

5. Acknowledge their perceptions and ask permission to suggest another possible explanation. People draw conclusions and feel strongly about them. Admit that their assumptions may be accurate, but then ask whether they have considered other possible explanations for your behavior. This is the opening you are looking for in your attempt to manage perceptions. You will never bring everyone around to your point of view, but you can persuade some that your motives were more reasonable than they first suspected.

What practical strategies have you used to manage others’ perceptions?

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