What Matters More, Perception or Reality?
“Our theories determine what we see.”
A participant in one of our feedback workshops shared this story:
“I’m by nature very introverted, which has created some difficulties for me in my career. The most serious problem surfaced a year or so after I was promoted to management. As with many managers at technical companies, I was promoted not because of my superior interpersonal or leadership skills, but because I had the best technical skills.
“After becoming a manager, I continued to do what I did best, which was to solve technical problems. And I avoided things that made me feel uncomfortable, which included interacting with people on an informal and personal basis. One day I received feedback from some direct reports. They essentially said, ‘You’re unapproachable and elitist. You think you’re better than us.’
“I couldn’t believe it. I thought they must be describing someone else. If anything, I’ve often felt inferior to others, particularly those who seemed so comfortable in social settings. Instead of seeing my behavior for what it was—evidence of my shy and introverted nature—they interpreted it as evidence that I thought I was better than them. Because the feedback was based on misperceptions, I thought it wasn’t valid and was therefore inclined to dismiss it. But eventually I came to see that although their view of me was based on a misperception, it was that view that was undermining our relationship and their willingness to give me their best efforts. The gift to me was discovering that people didn’t react to me based on who I was—shy and introverted— but based on their perception of who I was—aloof and elitist.
“I have often heard the phrase, ‘Perception is reality,’ but not until this happened did I understand what that really meant. Their perceptions of me were creating the reality of an ineffective team. If I wanted a different reality, one that involved an effective and collaborative team, I would have to change those perceptions. That would require me to get out of my comfort zone, spend more time interacting with team members, and sometimes talking about personal interests. I will never be a charismatic leader, but because of that feedback I’m a much more effective manager.”
What we can learn from this case is that subjective perceptions, even when they’re inaccurate, are more powerful in shaping behavior than so-called objective facts. In order to save his career, this leader had to discard the erroneous notion that facts trump perceptions and realize that perception is reality.