Perceptions – The Unreal Truths

Part 3 In Our Change Management Considerations Series 

See Part 1 – Change Management – What Is It?

See Part 2 – The Nature of People – How Does It Affect What We Do?

Perceptions are our awareness and understanding of situations as determined by our senses (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, and feeling). We absorb more than a thousand impressions per minute through our senses. These impressions shape how we process information, how we reach conclusions, and how we form opinions. They constitute our version of the truth, our biases, our likes, and our dislikes. A few points about perceptions:

  • They are both a conscious and sub-conscious phenomenon.
  • They are heavily influenced by past experiences and our cultural upbringing.
  • They are sometimes nothing more than a snap judgment – an instinctive rather than intellectual reaction.
  • We use them to guide us towards where we want to go and away from where we don’t want to go.
  • They can be “changed” or “altered.”
  • The more we learn, the more we examine, the more our perceptions change.
  • How we perceive, not what we perceive, is what influences how and what we think and believe, which, in turn, influences our behaviors.
  • Perceptions differ from person to person – they are an individual phenomenon and as such, no two people’s perceptions of a situation are exactly the same. 

Consequently, the processing of reality by an individual is not really reality. It rarely is. Perceptions are the final state of reality after they get influenced by many factors. These factors being:

  • Emotions 
  • Past experiences
  • Knowledge
  • Behavior styles
  • Learning styles
  • And cognitive distortions of an individual

Let’s revisit the meeting fracas in Part 1 between Joan (IT Developer, Amiable behavior style) and Jack (Manager in Marketing Department, Driver behavior style). [In Part 5, Behavior Styles, we get into more detail on this important topic. For now, Amiable means the person tends to be more people orientated and demonstrates low assertiveness. Driver means the person tends to be more task orientated and demonstrates high assertiveness.]

The marketing department of ABC company was introducing new product lines with support from new and modified systems provided by the IT department. The marketing folks had reassigned their manager that had been dealing with Joan from IT and replace her with Jack. Unbeknown to the IT folks, the Marketing department manager was not so pleased with Renee’s management of their part of the project. It wasn’t going fast enough so Renee had been replaced with Jack, a proven ‘tiger’ in getting projects moving. Fred, the IT project manager for the systems development efforts, sent Joan to meet with the new guy and bring him up to speed on the project.  Up to this point, from the IT perspective, things had been going extremely well between Marketing with Renee (Amiable) and IT Joan (Amiable). 

Both Joan and Jack started their meeting with differing perceptions that resulted in conflicted expectations. We don’t have to be experts in behavior styles to quickly size up the players. 

The minute Joan walked into Jack’s office she saw him looking at his computer, then some papers on his desk, finally glancing briefly at Joan as he moved over to his small conference table. Then, impatiently, saying “so what have you got for me?” Just from these first minutes, Jack’s concerns are clearly the task not the people. No welcome to Joan, no smile, no eye contact, no small talk – just “what have you got for me?”  And, Jack is fast paced, assertive – Driver style. Then came accusations about the status of the project schedule. Then came comments about the things that were not yet working. 

Joan was taken aback. Her expectations were for some friendly banter and a much slower pace to start off. Joan is very relationship oriented, not very assertive  – Amiable style. Based on her past experiences, her successes in building relationships with people, her self-confidence in her analytical abilities and technical prowess – she expected a cordial “get to know you” start and a friendly discussion of the impressive capabilities of the system. She expected Jack to be very impressed, with accolades for her work. Instead, she had a massive surge of adrenalin – her expectations had been dashed, immediately.

Jack is disappointed. His expectations were for a more aggressive entrance, strong handshake, a down to business attitude. Instead, he saw a meek, uncertain tech weenie. – certainly not on par with him. 

Jack is fast paced, task oriented – a Driver. He makes snap decisions, immediately ‘pigeon holing’ people into categories. He could see he would have to push Joan pretty hard to get to the point quickly.

Even though Joan was slower paced than Jack, it didn’t take her long to perceive Jack as a ‘Jerk’. As she began explaining the system status to Jack, he kept interrupting her with questions that, to Joan, required detail explanations to understand. Jack wouldn’t let her do that.

Both Joan and Jack had moved into emotional overdrive, validating their first impressions. Jack managed to ‘brow beat’ Joan to get the summary information he felt he needed. Due to Jack’s behavior style and perception filters, the information he got had very little resemblance to the true facts.

The culture had been dramatically modified. How IT deals with Marketing and how Marketing deals with IT – for this project – would never be the same. At least, not without considerable work to understand and change these new perceptions of Jack and Joan.

One of the more amusing, but still quite telling, examples of how we convolute perceptions to meet our needs occurred in the movie ‘Chicago’. The scene is in the bedroom of a very rich young lady. As she walks in, she casually sees the lump in the bed – her boyfriend still sleeping. Then she hears the sounds of a woman, two women! She reaches into the drawer of her vanity table and pulls out a gun, spins around, points the gun at her boyfriend and screams “what are you doing?!” to which he responds “Nothing, nothing at all!”  She says, “It doesn’t look that way to me!” His response is classic  – “Babe, are you going to believe what you see or what I tell you!?” She shoots him and the women.

Another good one from ‘Chicago’. One of the women was asked why she was in prison. She answered that she was in for murder but she was innocent. Her explanation was: “My boyfriend cheated on me. Then he ran into my knife during our argument. He ran into my knife 10 times!”

Think about that. How often have we seen people tell things they really want to be true that we view differently? And, surprisingly to us, they are totally convinced of their perceptions being true.

Our filters on how we contaminate our perceptions are developed and solidified by our experiences. These roots are strong. We don’t need to know how people have come to develop and embrace their perceptions – the roots. But we do need to realize that what we see is what we get.

As a quick example of how these roots can develop our perceptions and subsequently control our future:

Charlie was a big fellow who found out early in life that he could get by with being assertive. His father reinforced this behavior because he wanted Charlie to be a “real man.” By the time Charlie became a teenager, he had long ago refined his behavior into an habitual style. 

For example, one evening his father told Charlie to mow the yard. Charlie, who hated this task, procrastinated and left it undone to play football with friends.

His father was all over him that evening.  So, the next day, Charlie grabbed his younger brother and ordered him to cut the lawn and his younger sister to do the trimming.  Charlie, being far bigger, coerced them into doing what he wanted.

That evening, Charlie’s father saw the results and told Charlie he did a good job and the lawn looked great.

Charlie failed at all jobs that required him to be much less assertive and excelled in jobs where he could tell others what to do.

After failing at many endeavors requiring less assertiveness, he became a lawyer, then a district attorney, and later a judge – always finding positions that allowed him to tell others what to do.

Charlie’s choices reinforced his habits, and he limited his opportunities to develop a variety of ways for dealing with people in different situations.  As the years went on, he grew more reluctant to change.

Charlie didn’t realize that when he drew conclusions about others it was based on his own preferences.  If Charlie saw a coworker behaving in an unassertive manner, he typically concluded that the person was “gutless.”

What Charlie was really doing was assuming that his own behavior was good and that anyone who behaved differently from him must be bad.

Charlie’s brother, who was much less assertive, grew up feeling uncomfortable with very assertive people and he too sought out career situations that supported his preferences.  He became a marriage counselor with an easygoing, rather non-direct method.

Using our perceptions, we formulate the guidelines and rules that we follow – what we do and how we do it – which is our own personal culture. 

The price of admission for today’s workforce, and more importantly, today’s leaders, requires a new and deeper sense of empathy, a new kind of understanding, in order to participate. And, it is our perceptions that are the vanguard of that adjustment. Reframing how we view others, and how others view us, must be the starting point.

It is essential that we become more cognizant, more self-aware of our own perceptions and those of others. It’s perceptions that are the foundation of our “personal” culture. In Part 4, we look at Culture considerations.

Jim Stanton

Jim Stanton is the founder of Perception Management, Inc., and the creator of the Perception Analysis Methodology (PAM), a non-invasive process for the discovery and validation of the ‘ground truth’ in organizations. Jim has 51 years of experience in improving technology utilization, team building, and managing change. As COO of a $1.1B company, he reengineered global operations saving $45M annually driving internal growth revenues to $3.2B over 8 years. Jim founded 3 successful consulting firms and is an advisor to several CIOs, CEOs and start-up companies. His early career was as a physicist/mathematician developing guidance equations for the first moon landing that led to a strong focus on 'cause and effect' management approaches that work. He is certified in ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), CoBit (Control Objectives for Information and related Technology), Change Management (ODR), and Process Reengineering (CSC Index).

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