Managing Perceptions: The Leadership ChallengePosted on September 13, 2015

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Perceptions are powerful things. They are so powerful that leaders often remind themselves and others that, “Perception is reality.” Like most comforting clichés there is much truth in it, but it is not entirely true. If it were, there would be no need for words like “misperception,” “illusion,” or “delusion.” Leaders recognize the truth; perception is reality (sometimes).

We all have our perceptions. They influence how we feel and act. Perceptions both derive from and shape our basic values, attitudes and beliefs. Most of our assumptions in life are perception-based. They are enmeshed in our unconscious minds where they mold our personalities and influence the ways we express ourselves and view others. And perceptions are stealthy. They attack without warning. We often don’t see our perceptions or recognize their impact on the way we view our world. We suspect that others’ views are contaminated by their perceptions, but we are clueless about our own. If others see things the way we do, we are reassured.  When they see things differently, we deride their perceptions as immature, silly or even delusional. Can you appreciate the confounding complexity here? We have perceptions about perceptions. It’s no wonder that some have questioned whether reality even exists outside the minds of perceivers. Serious leaders take perceived reality seriously but they understand that reality is more than perception.

Heady reflections notwithstanding, leaders spend their entire careers picking their way through minefields of perceptions. Leaders cannot hope to succeed at persuading others to follow them unless they can learn to recognize and manage perceptions including their own.

The blog entries that follow will attempt to describe some practical ways leaders can achieve this. Like every other leadership skill, this requires interest, intent and practice. Some of us are naturally better at it, but we can all improve our perception-management skills. This is no academic exercise. Your skill at dealing effectively with perceptions will have a great deal to do with how you turn out as a leader. Please join the conversation. Share your perceptions. Consider others’. Learn to manage perceptions instead of letting them manage you.

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