Managing Perceptions: View Misperceptions as OpportunitiesPosted on October 4, 2015

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Leaders typically respond to their own misperceptions with some mixture of defensiveness and embarrassment. That’s natural enough. No one wants to appear stupid. Revealingly, they respond to others’ misperceptions with less respect for their feelings. Leaders usually react with annoyance and frustration when their colleagues haven’t paid attention or when they pass along unsubstantiated gossip. Leaders often allow themselves to become indignant when others trade in intentional misinformation or expose their deep convictions that leaders can never be trusted.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Misperceptions—and their maddening relatives, perceived misperceptions—play significant roles in how we perceive others and how they perceive us. Some misperceptions can be convincingly demonstrated to be wrong. This is the great value of data. Confronted by the data, people will sometimes modify their misperceptions on the spot. More often, we see what we want to see. We can always find data to support our views. For these more or less fixed beliefs, viewing them as different perceptions instead of misperceptions is a more helpful approach. No matter how you view them and how you deal with them, conflicting perceptions or misperceptions are opportunities to clarify, to understand and to modify your approach as a leader.

How can you do it?

Admit your own. Before you attack others’ misperceptions, admit that we all have our perceptions and that a fair number of yours have turned out to be wrong over the years.

Invite others to share their perceptions. Don’t fall into the trap of labeling them as misperceptions from the start.

Recognize that many people are hesitant to share their perceptions openly. They don’t want to appear foolish. They don’t want to hurt others’ feelings. They don’t want to be accountable for what they think and feel.

Ask people about what other people think. This is fascinating. Most folks will eagerly tell you what their colleagues think. They will often put their thoughts in their friends’ mouths.

However you learn what people believe, think and feel, prepare to be grateful and accepting. Don’t react with annoyance or condescension. This measured response will take some thought and practice. Human beings are wired to defend what they perceive. Leaders are wired that way too.

How have you successfully managed misperceptions by viewing them as opportunities instead of problems?

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