Managing Perceptions: Acknowledge YoursPosted on September 27, 2015

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?

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