Monday, April 14, 2014

Developing Our Leadership Skills Part 5 … How important is Perception?

Perception is what others think of us.  What others think of us may not be true for us, and it is always true for them.  Wait… what does that mean?

Ok… We all have thoughts, or perceptions about the people in our lives.  When we were in school there were teachers that we thought didn’t like us because they expected a lot from us, and would only accept our best work.  We didn’t know that their intentions were to get us to see what we were capable of… we just thought they didn’t like us, that they were not good teachers.

Many of us have worked for a boss who played favorites, or at least that was our perception.  Sometimes the boss will spend extra time helping a team member develop their work skills, or Leadership qualities because the boss would like to see them promoted soon.  To us, it looks as if this team member is being treated differently, and so our perception is the boss is playing favorites, or even having an affair with that team member.  And to be fair… sometimes they are playing favorites or having an affair! 

The point is our perceptions are what we think is happening.  They can come from what we hear, either ourselves or from gossiping; from what we see, or think we see; and from how we are affected by what is happening, or how we feel about what is happening.  Perhaps this is where the old adage comes from… Believe only half of what you see, and none of what you hear!

Perceptions can be accurate, and they can be inaccurate.  It really doesn’t matter… once people have a perception of us as the Leader, those perceptions can be very difficult to change.

The examples of this are countless… Once someone is accused of some crime, and the accusation is made public, it doesn’t matter whether they are guilty or not… there is a percentage of people who can never be convinced that the person is innocent.  It doesn’t matter if the charges are dropped, and the false accusation made public… some people will never believe it.  Their perception is fixed.

I would bet that many of us have not always been the best workers.  Perhaps when we were young we were not quite as committed as we are now?  Or perhaps we were promoted into a position that we were not quite ready for, and we struggled for a time?  Maybe some personal problems we brought to work?  There were several times in my life when my team member’s perception of me what not true, at least for me.  At one point I was going through a difficult time in my personal life… struggling with alcoholism and a relationship ending because of it.  Some of my apprentices, and some members of my team thought that I didn’t care about my job anymore, or that I stopped caring about them.  That was their perception of how I was acting.  It took several months, and more than a few honest and raw conversations to finally change those perceptions.

It doesn’t matter what we intend… If our behavior, something we did or said (or didn’t do or didn’t say) hurt someone’s feelings, then we hurt their feelings.  As an example, I greet a customer… “And how are you doing on this fine fine day”?  “Is it not a great day to be alive”?  Yes… I might just say that to a customer, what of it?  Anyway… as I was saying… If that customer then goes to customer service and states that I was rude to her, was I rude to her?  The answer is yes.  Yes I was.  I did not mean to be, and it’s all about perception.  It’s always all about perception.  I should have been able to read her facial expressions, and body language to see that she was taking what I said or did in a way I did not intend.  If I had, I could have fixed it right then and there, since I certainly didn’t mean to be anything but fun and friendly.

Some of you will be arguing that I was not rude to her, and… in the real world, I would agree that I did not do anything to be rude to her, that it was her problem.  Maybe she just got a speeding ticket, or had a fight with her honey, or one of her parents just died, or one of a million things that can happen to us.  And in our work world, whatever she is feeling is important because she is a customer, and something I did made her feel a certain way.

Yes… I agree with you.  In reality, no one can ‘make’ you feel anything.  Only I determine what I feel about something.  And… In reality, the vast majority of us are not so emotionally intelligent that we can stay present in every day life.  Most people are wildly affected by things that are said to them, and by the things that happen to them.  So… If we are Leaders, and we have some level of emotional intelligence and empathy, we are responsible for seeing how others perceive our words and our actions.  We are then responsible to go about working to fix it when our words or actions are taken any way other than the way in which we intend.

We have to act quickly to fix it when we are perceived in a way we did not intend.  As time passes people’s perceptions harden very quickly.  So… in my example above, if I catch the customer’s expression change on the spot, and fix it before she walks away, I will have a relatively easy time of it.  If I allow her to walk away and complain to someone, the energy it will take to fix it just increase many fold.  If she doesn’t stop to complain, and leaves the store, the odds are good that she will complain to every person who will stand still long enough for her to tell the story.  At that point it will be very difficult to change that customer’s perception of me, not to mention the damage to our business

This is why it is so important that we as Leaders are not only emotionally intelligent, but also aware of how people perceive us.  We also have to teach everyone who works for us, especially the front line team members who work with our customers, all about perception.  I have found that once my team members understood that it wasn’t necessarily about them, that they may not have done anything wrong, they were much more able to show empathy to an upset customer, and fix many small problems before they become big problems.
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