In the corporate world, how you see things is often more important than what you see. And, what you perceive is sometimes more important that what it really is! Paradoxical as it may seem yet we are all products of our beliefs and perceptions. Leaders who believe that they have empathy and look out for the well-being of the people they lead before their own, are often perceived as caring leaders.
Why is it so important to manage your own perception? It can make powerful changes to your own performance and allow you to achieve what may have been beyond your reach otherwise. Conversely, it can completely sabotage your achievements and put even simple things out of your reach. As a leader, you need to manage your perceptions and not only keep it realistic but also grounded in facts.
1. Perception of Empathy
In a professional environment, there are several instances where lack of empathy can alienate your colleagues or subordinates. But, empathy is not easy to come by. It means putting yourself in the shoes of the person you are judging and then reflecting on their actions in the light of what you would do in a similar situation.
When you judge someone’s actions from your own perspective, the conclusions you draw could be at variance with what the truth is.
There is a story of a young soccer player whose father accompanied him to every game he played. Dutifully he sat in the stands and watched his son play. One day during a practice session in the morning, his coach received the news that the player’s father had passed away. He reached out to the player and after expressing his condolences told him to take as much time off as he needed.
There was a rather important match scheduled that afternoon itself where the coach was counting on this player. To the coach’s surprise just before the match, the player turned up in his gear ready to play.
Taken aback by what he perceived as the player’s indifference to the tragedy that had just occurred, he couldn’t help asking, “What are you doing here? I told you to take time off.”
The player replied, “I have to play for my dad today.”
His performance in the match was brilliant and when his team won the game, he knelt on the ground and looked at the sky.
After the match, when the coach reached out to him and hugged him, the player said, “Coach you know my dad used to come to watch every match that I played. But, what you probably don’t know is that he was blind.”
As tears rolled down his cheeks he said, “Today was the first day, I thought he could see me play from wherever he is, so I played this match for him!”
2. Perception of Intentions
What motivates different people often varies from person to person. And, just because you don’t understand or identify with another person’s intent or motivation doesn’t mean that it is wrong.
As a leader, understanding people is key to motivating them. However, you need to make an effort to understand them from their perspective. Judging actions purely based on what you see can lead you to erroneous conclusions.
Some years ago we were bidding for a rather large public sector IT services deal. The bid documents were very detailed and exhaustive. Since compliance with the bid stipulations was of paramount importance we were focusing on every single line of the Request for Proposal (RFP) document.
In the RFP, there were two important provisions that appeared to be contradictory. When we analysed it in the light of the rest of the RFP we could identify which provision was applicable and what the intent of the client really was.
The client had arranged for a Pre-bid conference to clarify the RFP provisions. In the conference, realising that the client had made a mistake inadvertently and not wanting to make them look incompetent, we made a passing reference to the clause and our interpretation of it, which the client confirmed. With that, we were good to go.
Another bidder, however, decided to make a big thing out of these two clauses and berated the client for the confusion it had caused. And, this was after the client had already clarified.
The outcome was – this company was disqualified from the bidding process on a technicality while we went ahead and won the bid.
3. Perceptions Can Distort Your Actions
What you perceive often colours your thoughts and perceptions. Over time it moulds your actions into a channel that is aligned with your perceptions regardless of whether your perceptions were right in the first place or not.
In one of my jobs, the company that I was working for had got into a dispute with a large public sector client and the dispute had entered the conciliation phase. The client had appointed a conciliator to resolve the dispute and both sides were engaged in presenting their points of view to him.
By the time I took charge of the business, battle lines were drawn on both sides and the matter had turned ugly with both sides blaming the other.
When I looked at the correspondence to and from the client I could see stances hardening over time. I could also perceive that both the sides were justified in some places and not justified in others.
I decided to take an open view of the whole issue and when I went to meet the conciliator along with the client, I told him that I just wanted to listen to their viewpoint and explore a settlement based on that.
Over the next seven meetings across eight months I spent most of my time listening to the client’s viewpoint and by the time I got around to putting our viewpoint across, we had aligned on most of the critical issues.
Shortly thereafter we reached an amicable No-Fault Settlement that was possibly the best outcome possible, simply because we were open to understanding the client’s perceptions and their issues!
4. Perception Of Behaviour
Some years ago I had a team member who would take the time to respond to any question that I asked him. And, this was so even for simple things. His behaviour left me frustrated and I ended up feeling that he was being insolent.
One evening I was sitting with another team member in my office. I knew him to be a good friend of the person whose behaviour I was not comfortable with. When I asked him why his friend was slow in responding to anything I asked him, he replied that this person came from a small town and was not only a little shy but also his command over the English language was not so good.
Strangely I had missed this point because the responses he gave me in English were reasonable even if they were delayed. My perception of his behaviour made me a little more impatient with him, which in turn increased his stress level and decreased the speed of his response.
Once I understood this, I changed the way I interacted with him and there was no issue anymore.
Understanding other people’s perception and ensuring that your own perception is balanced can make a quantum difference to what you can achieve. More importantly, it can make it a pleasure to manage and motivate people.
About the Author: Srinivasan is an independent consultant working in the area of strategy and technology interventions in the public sector domain. He has worked in companies like IBM and TCS and has over 30 years of experience spanning 24 countries.