Managing Perceptions: Respect Their PowerPosted on September 20, 2015

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

There are two kinds of leaders who instinctively underestimate the power of perceptions. First, there are the skeptics. They are interested in the evidence. They are not inclined to believe; they want to know the truth. They take the rational view. They view feelings and perceptions—including their own—as mere emotional drivel that cannot be trusted. Then there are the demagogues. They take their own perceptions very seriously, but they devalue the perceptions of others. These leaders are not engaged in a search for truth. They have no interest in dialog. They just want their way. And those with conflicting perceptions are in their way.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

You may have already realized that people are primarily driven by emotion, not reason. People long to be moved, not persuaded. And what feels right is right for such folks. They feel and believe and act on their perceptions without giving much thought to whether their perceptions are accurate. Successful leaders recognize the power of perceptions and respect them accordingly. They seek to understand them, they use them and sometimes challenge them, but they never underestimate their power.

How can you do it?

Admit your own. Instead of dogmatically stating, “This is the way it is,” preface your opinion with, “It is my perception that . . .” This approach signals others that you are open to considering differing perceptions.

Seek to understand others’ perceptions. Genuine curiosity is disarming. If people conclude you want to understand them, they are usually inclined to help you do that. If they sense you are dismissive, they will become defensive. Once people become defensive, changing their minds is pretty much out of the question.

Accept them. This is hard particularly when you know that the evidence does not support their perceptions. For example, a number of nice people sincerely believe they have been abducted by aliens. Resist the tendency to argue with them. You will not change their minds. Just accept their feelings and move on to something about which you can both agree.

Explore how others’ perceptions arose. Gently and respectfully inquire about the reasons they feel the way they do. If you do this skillfully, they may start to examine the basis for their perceptions for themselves.

Connect perceptions and behavior. This will help both of you understand why you react in a particular way. And it is generally easier to change behavior than perceptions. That is not to say it is easy.

Thank people for sharing their perceptions with you. Leaders forget this important step all the time. Our perceptions are at the core of who we are, and admitting and sharing them is risky. Let others know you appreciate their openness.

How do you respect the power of perceptions in your everyday interactions with your colleagues?

4 Responses

Vicki Noel September 20th, 2015

For me, I have remember to “seek contrary evidence” around my own perceptions. If others don’t challenge my perceptions, which often doesn’t happen in our own “tribes” (ha!), then as a leader I need to commit to pausing…to look hard for evidence of the opposing view. When I have been successful at this, I have confirmed that nothing is all as I perceive it.

Kendall L. Stewart September 20th, 2015

This is one of the values of building a diverse team of strong people who bring (and voice) different perspectives.

Eric Stevens September 21st, 2015

I stay away from becoming defensive. It would be futile and counterproductive to debate someone’s perception. If my intent was not clear, it is my job to make it clear.

Kendall L. Stewart September 21st, 2015

Eric, I agree that defensiveness is a reliable indicator that differing perceptions have interfered with the communication process. It is time to retreat to your common ground and try again.


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