Managing Perceptions: Clarify ThemPosted on October 18, 2015

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

This is not an easy thing to do. Many colleagues will not want you to know what they really think. They may not want to hurt your feelings. More often, they do not want their perceptions exposed to public scrutiny. They understand they will be judged by others when they take a public position. It is much safer to keep their feelings to themselves—unless they are confident that they are in the presence of people who will agree with them.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Face reality. Many of the people you will interact with on a daily basis will say one thing to your face and something entirely different behind your back. You will not be able to change that entirely, but you will want to know what people really think whenever you can. A clear understanding of what you are up against will permit you to make a more compelling case and to find ways around the barriers that inevitably arise. And the honest exchange of mutual perceptions, particularly when they conflict and they are welcomed nonetheless, builds trust. As you have discovered, trust is the currency of leadership.

How can you do it?

Begin by clarifying your own perceptions. Admit up front that they are probably flawed and that you are open to changing them based on new data or the wise counsel of others.

Speculate that others have different perceptions. Like the psychic who predicts that life will have its ups and downs, you can predict dissent with great confidence.

Ask people to share their perceptions. Accept their perceptions as perfectly reasonable from their point of view. That’s no stretch. If you were in their shoes, you would feel exactly as they do.

Ask clarifying questions. This will help you clear up misunderstandings and communicate more effectively. It also conveys genuine interest and respect.

Summarize your understanding of their views. Resist every temptation to be dismissive, argumentative or judgmental.

Resist the tendency to persuade or find common ground on the spot. Ask for permission to think about their perceptions instead. Our defensiveness about our views subsides with time and reflection, especially after we have stated them openly in a public setting. Give that natural process a chance to work—for both of you.

How have you successfully clarified your colleagues’ perceptions around a contentious issue?

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