The expression, “I cannot believe my eyes,” comes out so easily. Have you ever asked yourself, why? Obviously, whatever happened was unexpected and yet it just did happen.
The simple answer is that we are governed by what has transpired and thus we can only imagine the possible. So how does that translate in a work environment!
Imagine you walk into an organization where no one knows you apart from those that hired you. You ask for directions to your department and the person points you in the right direction. As you walk away you overhear the person say to another person, “there goes another bureaucrat”. What goes through your mind as the new person?
At that point whatever goes through your mind should ideally be irrelevant but unfortunately, the human psyche being what it is, the person will play that comment in their mind over and over and overthink the situation before they even get to their department. By the time they reach there, they will already have a picture in their mind which they will probably ascertain as being the truth. Thus, everything henceforth that happens will be measured against that incident. The yardstick potentially has been built rather erroneously. Almost every perception starts like that.
In a lot of cases, one hears that perception is not important and one should ignore it. Interestingly, the advice that stems from that is to be who you are. Picture this; if you are someone who is hilarious and seen as a fun person, almost inevitably you are seen as a clown-like character and historically are overlooked in promotions because of the “perception” that your profile will not suit the needs of the position even though you may be a good performer. Being yourself, thus, can be counter-productive as it does not “conform”.
This stigmatization also permeates into the way people are hired based on a very strict criterion which begins with someone’s perception of what the person should look like in demeanour and then this is translated into a job description. The oft-repeated phrase, “what brought you here, will not take you where you wish to go”, comes to mind. Human nature is such that we seek comfort in the familiar. Organizations are always looking to hire better and yet prefer to approach it with a sense of familiarity. This logic mirrors conformity and can potentially be the root cause of organizations cantering along at a nice easy pace as opposed to surging forward.
I have heard the expression, “Perception is reality”, so many times and yet I cringe every time I hear it as I too have been guilty of falling into this trap. So how then can this “perception” be standardized when everyone has a different perspective of reality?
I have tried very hard over the course of my career to not stigmatize despite the supposed incident(s). Sometimes I ended up in a place where I felt that the individual purposely conforms.
Perception is usually a process. One evaluates the information we get via communication, body language, tonality, and our perspective of the person’s abilities. We use our senses to regulate what is acceptable based on our demeanour at the time. Various things can affect our appraisal processes, like our inability to accept those that do not think like us or our state of mind at the time be it anger, stress or happiness. Based on historical facts, one extrapolates accordingly. Thus, someone with empathy might be more tolerant and sympathetic to other people.
A lot gets lost in translation and thus can lead to disagreements. Interpretation requires a sense of openness in the way we make assumptions. Questions play a key role in logical assertions in our mind with regards to how we perceive others in terms of the choices they make and their reasons behind them. Thus, eventually, we conclude on the basis of our summations. Eventually, these have a major impact on how we respond to the person or situation.
So where is the point of synergy if our viewing perspective is different? The makings of an answer can only arrive when we become curious and ask questions. The more we understand each other the easier it becomes to not pass unwarranted judgement. This ability to understand each other opens our minds to possibilities which we never thought of in the first place. Our inability to ask more and understand each other leads to a lack of empathy which hinders our ability to be more emotionally intelligent. Thus, for organizations to foster positivity and openness, they have to work hard at fostering critical behavioural skills with how perceptions are perceived at work.
On an individual level, overcoming self-perception is one of life’s all-conquering mountain climbs. Self-concept and self-esteem are so skewed and personal, it would be hard to surmise that someone’s self-concept is “right” or “wrong.” However, we can identify negative and positive aspects of self-perceptions as well as assess common barriers to forming realistic self-perceptions. What we can do is discern common patterns that people experience which interfere with one’s ability to monitor, understand, and change their self-perceptions.
A strategy worth considering is Perception checking. It will help monitor one’s reactions to and perceptions about people and how we communicate. Ask yourself, “What is influencing the perceptions I am making right now?” Being aware of influences that are acting on our perceptions makes us more aware of what is happening in the perception process. Alternatively, we can also ask others around us by verifying if our understanding of a situation makes sense or not.
The steps of perception checking that I recommend one follows are:
- Step 1: Take out the judgement or evaluating an aspect of a situation when conceptualizing it in your mind.
- Step 2: Think of all the possible variations of reasons that might explain the action.
- Step 3: Try asking the person as to what transpired and understand it from their eyes as opposed to just yours.
To illustrate the above, allow me to explain the beauty of perception by sharing the following: In English, we have an idiom that says, “I didn’t sleep a wink at night”. When translated, the same statement in Xhosa is said in the following manner; “when dawn broke, I was looking with yesterday’s eyes”.