2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 39: Is Perception Everything?

Your Perception Defines Your Reality

Some say that we live in a simulation. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Matrix popularized ideas long held by some physicists and game theorists. Some say that we will be living in a parallel reality, a metaverse dramatized by Ender’s Game, Belle and Ready Player One, to mention only three pop culture narratives. There are plenty of thinkers and philosophers who believe that reality is how you perceive it; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. So, what does any of this have to do with running an organization? A lot.

Perception Isn’t Universal

According to Christina Catenacci, ethics professor, “Perception is the process by which individuals organize and interpret their sensory impressions to give meaning to their environment. What one perceives can be substantially different from what another person perceives, and both can be very different than the actual objective reality. In fact, behavior is based on one’s perception of what reality is, not reality itself.” As for the workplace, “There are many factors that influence how something is perceived. Factors pertaining to the perceiver can involve the person’s attitudes, motives, interests, experience, and expectations. Contextual factors can involve time, work setting and social setting. Finally, factors related to the actual target can involve novelty, motion, sounds, size, background, and proximity,” she adds.

We often believe the way we think, act, and participate is consistent across all aspects of our perceived reality, personal or professional. However, our behavioral responses change depending on the situation or environment we are in. Our individual reality is comprised of how we interpret societal cues and norms, how we have learned to accord our behavior and actions, and the sum total of what we have previously experienced. Our reality is also informed by our interpretation of what we believe others believe and how they want us to act, communicate or behave. Our workplaces introduce similar conflicting interpretations of our actions and behaviors, given situations and the environment, shaping what we believe to be appropriate, expected and accepted.

Situational and environmental awareness transcends our traditional belief that we are the same person at all times. This paradox is often overlooked or completely missed by individuals and as an organization seeks to manage its workforce, retain new customers, and acquire new ones. Many organizations attempt to develop personas or classifications that generalize attributes of a herd, but rarely do they seek to understand how a group of employees or customers can shape the relationship between an organization and themselves according to their own perceptional reality. The challenge is then to identify the mercurial individual that manifests according to a perception of reality in a specific circumstance.

How we act, behave and operate occurs organically, at a level of unconsciousness and based on deeply rooted processes of interpreting, learning, and forming our perceptions of reality. This ingrained process is built on a subconscious series of switches that we turn on or off dependent on the situation or environment. The limits of our learned behavior and programmed responses can cause us to experience anxiety and stress when we are unsure how to act and respond to a new situation. And the outcome may not immediately accord to our recognized behavior or responses. We may not know why we suddenly feel uncomfortable or off-base.

We constantly seek comfort and want to know how to interpret and then respond in any environment based on our perceptions (right or wrong). It requires a high level of mindfulness to recognize the shifts and when the switch is flipped. In actuality, we flow seamlessly from one situation to another without much conscious thought.

More on Situational Awareness

Farnam Street reports, Environment is the hidden force that guides behavior. One reason it’s so effective is that it speaks to your subconscious mind and not your conscious mind. Default behaviors love the path of least resistance. Not only does our environment choose that path but it pushes us in that direction. If we limit our understanding of environmental influences only to what we can see, we miss a large part of its powerful force.”

In essence, even hidden environmental forces shape our behaviors. We become someone different depending on the situation. These shifts are often not recognized at the individual level. But think about goal attainment, the need to perform, an ability to dismiss normal inhibitions, and outright adaptation and you see that there is more than meets the eye. For example, how many of us realize how subconscious and hormones play a driving role in behavior? Perception is one’s reality and we often align or internalize what we are told we should feel and believe which leads us to falsely feel safe and secure.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo has studied “time perspective” and the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment he conducted in 1971. His famous experiment with students dramatized how behavior can change to the extreme based on group pressure. Basically, the experiment assigned paid volunteers to be either inmates or guards in a simulated prison in the basement of the school‘s psychology building. Very quickly, the guards became cruel, and the prisoners more submissive and depressed. The situation grew chaotic, and the experiment, meant to last two weeks, had to be ended after five days.

In an interview with Matt Abrams of Stanford School of business, Zimbardo says, “Social psychologists want the world to know that the best way to predict what you will do in a certain situation is not knowing your personality traits but knowing the features of that situation. So, we believe that the social environment is the main thing that shapes human behavior, and it comes to dominating personality. And that’s what the prison study showed. So, essentially social psychologists believe that if we want to understand our own behavior and the behavior of others, the first thing we have to ask or notice is what is the situation in which they are performing, in which they are behaving. And then we want to know as much about the situation as possible. Deconstructed, means situational awareness can define and shape our understanding of time and communication.

Security Theater

Security theater is a perception of security, not real security. It shows up in many situations in our day-to-day lives where we seek to formulate a perception to ensure we feel safe, comfortable, liked, appreciated — and any range of other personal or professional emotional needs we have.

We seek security because it provides a platform and stage to believe in the day-to-day. It begets comfort and, in many ways, predictability. Bruce Schneier, the well-known security expert, coined the term security theater when he noticed that the TSA wasted billions of dollars a year on invasive airport screening post-9/11 to satisfy the public’s emotional need to do something. But the exercise did not make anyone safer, although they felt safer. Security theater is based on perception, for both those creating the situation and those who are participating in it.

Basically in an individual’s day-to-day assessment of situations and environments, as well as in business, security theater is a practice of taking security measures that are intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to achieve it. That is a massive gap between perception and reality. There is much that we interpret and tell ourselves that forms our perception of reality that doesn’t accord to fact and true reality.

The Workforce Perception Trap

As we have discussed, understanding one’s biases is important in knowing how to lead and manage. Biases can take us down rabbit holes that don’t represent shared reality. Our personal perceptions can equally lead us down the rabbit hole as we miss the true basis and response for a decision, communication or even in how to manage.

Catenacci has identified how an organization can be derailed by perceptual issues.

  • Fundamental attribution error: The tendency to underestimate the influence of external factors and overestimate the influence of internal factors when making judgments about the behavior of others.
  • Self-serving bias: The tendency to attribute one’s own successes to internal factors and blame one’s own failures on external factors.
  • Selective perception: The tendency to selectively interpret what is seen based on one’s interests, background, experience, and attitudes.
  • Projection: The tendency to attribute one’s own characteristics to other people.
  • Stereotyping: The tendency to judge someone based on the perception of a group to which that person belongs.
  • Halo effect: The tendency to draw a general impression about an individual based on a single characteristic.

Again, acknowledging that we are all human with our own perspectives that we rely on when perceiving things in the work setting, it is important to be aware of the various factors that influence our perceptions, especially when making important decisions that affect the organization, says Catenacci.

Perceptions Impact Organizational Decision Making

What happens when managers and executives running an organization falls into the trap of their perceptions? What happens when decisions and strategies are based on managers’ senses as opposed to their reasoning abilities? These are key questions posed by entrepreneur Thomas Papakostas. He adds, “There are so many corporate examples of this situation: you see great candidates being passed over just because they didn’t look the part, you see great performers that ‘look’ suitable being promoted to managers without having the management skills, you see executives appearing successful during the good times and flopping in the first adversity the organization faces, you see truly incompetent employees hiding behind office politics, you see decisions based on senses and feelings instead of facts.”

Catenacci adds, “Research has shown that what employees perceive from their work situation influences their productivity most. Therefore, to influence productivity, it is necessary for employers to assess how workers perceive their jobs.” A recipe for disaster is the trap of believing your perception is the only reality. The antidote? Informed decision making, relying on intelligence rather than feeling, and using fact-based logic. Papakostas adds, “In business, perception is not reality. Do the best you can to get the facts right and use your intelligence to see past the “smoke and mirrors.”

Perception and Reality in Practice

Let’s start with your own organization. Do you know and understand the perceptions of your employees about you and your workplace? From a top-down perspective, how you communicate your vision, mission and goals can be interpreted differently among different employees. How the workforce perceives their jobs and working conditions may not align with their managers’ perceptions. The challenge is to align everyone in a shared purpose and understanding of what your organization stands for and its operational ethos — all on a personal basis. Catenacci believes written workplace policies and procedures should be in place to help narrow the gap between perception and reality. Such policies help ensure management and employees act fairly and consistently, thus reducing the risk of discrimination and human rights violations, among other problems.

Here’s a cheat sheet from Regina Anaejionu, as reported on CHRON, of the top hotspots in the workplace today and how to help align your workforce in matching perception with reality.

1. Job Satisfaction

There is often a large gap among employees’ perceptions of their opportunities for advancement. Also, workers’ thoughts about workload and even the time to complete tasks may differ greatly from what supervisors or other coworkers think. Reality is always somewhere in between. Active listening is critical to understanding a workforce. So is facing up to stereotyping and personal bias that may influence how management sees the strengths and weaknesses of its teams. Taking a systemic approach to eliminate silos and design actionable networks among all levels of employees can reset workplace culture to actualize alignment of perceptions among employees and managers.

2. Communicating

Communication is a two-way proposition. When business communications are drilled down from the top, they can often be misinterpreted or viewed with cynicism by recipients. Add to this the cascade of emails and online meetings that also hinder transparent, honest exchanges of information and opinion. It is essential that two-way channels remain open for all employees to communicate authentically and without judgment.

3. Who’s Doing the Work?

The perception of management about who is doing the work can be the polar opposite of the workers. It may look like the team is pulling together, but anecdotal evidence usually proves that often 20% of workers do 80% of the work. Team leaders and managers need to set specific roles and duties for each team member with benchmarks in place to double-check who does what. Many managers perceive that a project went well just because it was completed on time, but this is not always the case in terms of the process and interactive experience. Catenacci adds, “An employee may be considered disloyal or not putting enough effort into a project. These characteristics are subjectively judged based on an employer’s perceptions. For instance, one supervisor may selectively perceive an employee to be loyal, while another supervisor may selectively perceive that same employee to be too conforming and insincere.”

4. Diversity

DEI has taken its rightful place in the pantheon of initiatives to create an equitable, inclusive workforce. Understanding employees’ needs instead of perceiving them bridges the divide between managers’ perceptions and employees’ realities. Remote work has reinforced the need for life/work balance. Organizations have been given glimpses of employees in their “natural habitats,’ resulting in making everyone more accessible and “human.” Diversity and inclusion may be the single biggest stumbling block in the perception/reality construct.

When Perception Distorts Reality

David Blitz, CEO on Co-Founder of Blitzlake Partners focuses on optics. He says the potential damage of optics can impact us personally and professionally. He asks, why? “Because whether we want to admit it or not, how others perceive us, and our reputation absolutely matter.” Controlling the optics is key. He adds, “With meticulous planning and a focus on an organization’s values, optics should never be something that happens to us. Yet it commonly does — usually very quickly and without warning. It is critical that optics are managed to showcase your integrity, hard work, successes and progress.” In our digital marketplace, transparent messaging about anything (good and bad) can go viral and impact the integrity of the organization. In this case, perception is everything and can become a death knell for good intentions. Managing public perception is hard and reversing a negative perception is nearly impossible to overcome.

Perception Mastery

We are the sum of our parts. Perceptions unrelated to shared reality can be landmines as they influence our actions and behaviors. At 2040 we help clients recognize how biases and perceptions can derail decision making, please customers, and empower a high-performance workforce. We have developed action plans to help any organization recognize and understand how the human factor is both the most powerful and vulnerable force in any business. We work with clients to create collective perceptions of reality that ensure their organizations can achieve success and remain competitive in a fragmented, complex marketplace.

Read this issue and past issues on 2040’s website>

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