The effectiveness of any leader is determined by their ability to manage multiple entities at the same time.
The best and most concise definition of “management” I have found is:
“Management is a social and technical process that utilises resources, influences human action and facilitates changes in order to accomplish an organization’s goals.” Tho Harmann, William Scott.
The reason I like this definition is that it looks beyond the process of planning, organising, directing and controlling people and resources, to managing things that are bit more intangible.
Two of the most interesting things that leaders need to manage are values and perceptions.
Managing values is a topic for another article, but I wixll just point out that in my experience of working with leaders over many years, I have concluded that the best leaders I have met and worked with have the ability to manage values skilfully.
In this article I want to look at managing perceptions.
First, let me define “Perception”
Noun: The ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses. The way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted. Oxford languages
If we are going to manage perceptions we need to understand that people’s perceptions are their reality. We seldom live in a world of facts. We live in a world of perceptions.
Here is a quote by Dr Ichak Adizes about facts:
“You do not really behave according to some absolute not to be questioned truth, proven facts, but according to continuous string of prejudices which are driven by past experiences, fears, hopes, influence we got from our parents, from the outside world, and especially today from TV and the media. They fill our head with opinions, which we take for a fact and drive us how we behave.”
Let’s start with a question: Is hot or cold a fact, or is it a perception?
I was on a call to my sister in Washington DC recently and she was sitting on her porch in a T-shirt and shorts and enjoying the warm weather. I was back in Cape Town with a jersey and beanie struggling with the cold. After a while we worked out that it was actually colder in DC than it was in Cape Town, but our perception of the temperature was different.
- Hot and cold are not facts, they are perceptions.
- 15 degrees is a fact. Whether 15 degrees is hot or cold is a perception.
- 60 kilometres per hour is a fact. Fast and slow are not facts, they are perceptions
- 70 decibels is a fact. Loud and soft are perceptions based on your preference.
- 1m3 is a fact. Big and small are based on the perception or circumstance.
- 1.8 metres is a fact. Short and tall are perceptions.
- 1 litre of milk is a fact. Whether that is a lot or little milk is a perception.
I often ask the question: What governs our lives?
The answer: The stories in our heads. These stories are our perceptions.
I was driving through Johannesburg a few years ago and there was an impatient driver behind me. I think he was frustrated that I was sticking to the speed limit. He kept driving right up to my back bumper and moving out over the solid line.
I found myself getting irritated by his behaviour. Questions started going through my head: Why was he being so stupid? Why was he so inconsiderate? Why was he putting my life in danger? His behaviour was wrong. In a few minutes I found myself getting upset. As soon as he had the opportunity he raced past me and disappeared down the road but the damage was done. I now had all these thoughts going through my head.
I immediately had to stop my thought processes! Here was someone who I did not know, who happened to be driving behind me for a few minutes, who I would probably never meet in my life, who’s circumstances I had no knowledge of, and he had managed to create a story in my head that was causing me to be stressed and upset. His driving behaviour was one thing, but the story I had created in my head was another. The facts were one thing, but my perceptions were something completely different. It is the sort of event that makes people make statements like: “All Joburg drivers are idiots!”. That is not a fact, that is a perception.
So – How do we manage perceptions?
Firstly – we need to differentiate in our own mind whether we are dealing with facts or perceptions. This is not easy to do, but like any skill or habit, by applying ourselves it becomes easier and easier.
Secondly – we need to do the same when communicating with others.
When you meet with your team you need to be aware that each person in the group has a different perception of what is happening, what is being discussed, what decisions are made, and what needs to be done. There has to be a deliberate strategy on your part as a leader to manage and align the perceptions. Assuming everyone in the team is seeing things from your perspective is a mistake.
Managing perceptions improves communication and productivity.
Here are two statements:
- “Hi team. Please get on this because it is urgent.”
- “Hi team. The directors think this is urgent and they want it completed by 12pm on Wednesday.”
The first statement lets the team filter the request through their own perceptions, and then go away and do what they think is best.
The second statement clarifies who thinks it is urgent, and exactly what time it is required.
Mind your language!
Watch the stories in your head. Stop stating things as if they are facts if they are not.
Manage your own language. You have to change statements like: “It is.” to “To me it looks like.”
Right or wrong?
As leaders we have an option: We can make different perceptions a problem or we can make different perceptions an asset. You need to take time when working with your team to hear other people’s perceptions without judging whether they are right or wrong. As you gather the different perceptions you will get a broader view of what you are looking at.
What do they think?
You can’t ignore other people’s perceptions and assume that if you see things a certain way then others will do the same. You have to ensure that their perceptions are based on facts and not the stories in their heads. You need to be going through a continuous process of understanding and managing how other people see you.
As long as they think I care
I am using “care” as an example because it is one of the critical things that a leader has to do if they are going to lead effectively.
Whether you care or not is actually irrelevant, because care is a perception. Whether someone thinks you care is what is important, and it is not based on facts, it is based on their perception of whether you care or not. If you do not express care in a language that the other person understands as care, then you do not care.
Salt looks like sugar. Be careful with what you think are facts.