Managing Perceptions: Challenge Them (Gently)Posted on November 1, 2015

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

People embrace their perceptions with intensity and defend them vigorously—particularly when they have no objective evidence for them. Leaders are sorely tempted to dismiss such perceptions, to ridicule them or to revile those who harbor them. Some leaders confront such perceptions directly and vigorously. These approaches only harden the opposition. The only value of disdain is to provide the leader with a temporary sense of superiority. We are all products of an evolutionary process that has produced brains that adopt beliefs first. Then we selectively look for the “evidence” that will reassure us we are right. We instinctively believe our perceptions are reasonable and those that differ are unreasonable.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

If you don’t understand and accept others’ perceptions first, you will not be able to persuade them to reconsider or modify them. While you will never be able to bring everyone around to your point of view, you must persuade at least a sufficient number of folks to help you produce organizational results. A leader cannot be a leader without followers. That means you must approach others’ perceptions with care.

How can you do it?

Seek first to understand. This may be the best advice Stephen Covey ever gave. If your colleagues sense you are faking interest, they will clam up. And from then on, they will be against whatever you are for.

Ask clarifying questions. Make sure you understand exactly what their perceptions are and why they think and feel the way they do. Avoid the temptation to be argumentative or disparaging in your tone. After all, they may be right and you may be wrong.

Admit that their perception is one possible explanation. When people say this is the way it is and this is the reason why, their perceptions and deductions are usually possible however unreasonable you may judge them to be.

Ask whether they have considered any other possible explanations? If they have, explore them. If they have not, inquire whether they would be interested in doing so. You will be amazed at the number of times they will tell you they have made up their minds and do not wish to consider any other viewpoints.

When all else fails, agree to disagree. Remain unfailingly agreeable while doing so. Reaffirm that you have a lot of common ground. And different perceptions make life much less boring.

How have you challenged others’ perceptions successfully?

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