Perception is Reality

The phrase—Perception is Reality—has always bothered me, particularly as a member of a generation that values authenticity and individuality. We are workforce of individuals on a quest to make a name for ourselves, empowered by a technological revolution that instantaneously allows us to publish our thoughts and ideas to a brave new world. We don’t want our personal image defined or judged by anything or anyone beyond our own existential will to define it—as reflected in our daily FaceBook status updates. History is made by those who Tweet it!

Or so we would like to think.

Fact is, other people’s perceptions of you in the workplace write just as much of your legacy as all the time you spent crafting a clever and creative social network profile. Like it or not, perception does matter when you’re working with other people. No matter how much we want others to think we are hip and cool because of the new and savvy way we go about our business at work—others are always defining us by what we do (or what we sometimes don’t do), as much as we are trying to define ourselves through our quest for individuality.

Whether it’s a conflicting style of dress or style of communication (@that post you made last week, complaining about your colleagues lack of urgency), people are consistently creating and alternative reality about you. Even though you had a great time at your best friends birthday party last week, your colleagues (some of which are also FaceBook “friends”) may not find your double fisted wine cooler bottle photos as entertaining as you did while celebrating the anniversary your friend’s birth. The perception of carelessness or immaturity—even if you were being a perfectly responsible adult (minus the Coyote Ugly table dance)—can translate into your workplace relationships.

One voicemail left unanswered for a period of more than 24 hours may fall short of the expectations of one co-worker who complains to three co-workers. Those three co-workers bring it up over lunch to four other co-workers. And the perception grows into an even greater reality—whether it is true or not. When speculate as to why a project wasn’t delivered within a certain period of time, assuming that you let the project fall into a “dark hole,” they begin to assume you’re disorganized. When people start making up the reasons for your personal or professional behavior, they can start creating a reputation for you—and that can become a big problem.

A good self leader wants to manage their own reputation by being proactive and wise about what they share with others—in the real world and the virtual one. Little things like, being organized, keeping promises, following up, and simply keeping your eyes and ears open for any “bad press,” will help you develop and maintain healthy relationships—a major point of power for your workplace success.

Unfortunately, many colleagues don’t come directly to you to clarify a perception that they may have about you, but indirectly gossip or question your reputation in front of others—and not always with spite or malice. Be willing to take in, even false perceptions about your work, so that you can actively engage those perceptions and work hard on maintaining a good reputation within your organization.

Though you are not the sum total of all the negative perceptions others may have about you, those perceptions are a part of an equation that defines who you are. But denying that perception is reality will only hurt you and your reputation in the long run. It is better to actively engage those perceptions and work hard to build Raving Fans with every client you serve, than to sit back and ignore the rumors. Until you inoculate yourself with this reality, you may suffer the unconscious fate of an unmanaged perception rearing it’s ugly head on you, your team, and your career.

Jason Diamond Arnold
Co-Author of Situational Self Leadership in Action
Blanchard Keynote Speaker

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  • Comments (8)
    • Steve Alves
    • June 25th, 2010

    Nice piece Jason. I think an interesting follow up to this would be how hard some work to try to manage the perception that others have of them and their work – and the failings therein. Seems that simply doing what is Right and Just and Honorable would be enough to establish well-balanced perceptions. But for many, it isn’t. Why do you think that is?

    • Steve, your tracking right along with my thoughts. The follow up article to this post will be the paradox to this on truth explored in the current post, Perception is Reality. On one hand, you have to manage other peoples perceptions, on the other, you can’t be imprisoned by those perceptions. Ken Blanchard often says, “the problem with most people is they think their self-worth is a function of their performance plus the opinion of others.” Our self-worth does NOT come from the opinion of others. Perceptions are only subjective. Consistently doing what is Right and Just and Honorable will in fact more than likely earn you trust and respect from colleagues, but the reason why organizations have Human Resource departments, is because organizations are made up of Human Beings, who have a diversity of world views, values, and opinions, and by nature, those different views often create some level of conflict or disagreement. The premise of this article is being aware of other people’s perceptions about your work, in order to help you better engage those perceptions actively, rather than passively letting them define you.

  1. Hi,

    We learn by perceiving and processing. “1st-we perceive by noticing events & take in new experiences; 2nd-we process or deal with experiences that helps us make sense of them” (Psychologist David Kolb).

    Learning styles: Becoming a flexible learner. Effective learners are flexible. They can learn using all four modes of learning by asking Why? What/ How? and What if? Becoming a flexible learner promotes your success in school and in the workplace. (Ellis, David 2006., Becoming a Master Student).

    Thank you!

    • Thanks for the quotes Jon. They add good insights to this notion of Perception is Reality. I think what is interesting about Kolb’s quote is that several people could perceive one event, several different ways. The car crash scenario. When the police arrive at the scene of an automobile accident, they try to interview as many people as possible. Each person had a different perspective on the same event. The authorities try to arrive at some reasonable conclusion as to what actually took place by interviewing as many different witnesses as possible, calculating several pieces of physical evidence, putting it into an equation and coming up with a reasonable description of what actually happened–and perhaps, who was at fault–or even better, how the community might avoid a future accident like this. Projects at work are often the same, even if they don’t result in a crash. I think the heart of the article is found in your second quote, being an effective learner. Being open to other perspectives gives you critical insights in how you could do your work more effectively, and as a result, maintaining a healthy respect from others within your organization. Good stuff!

  2. Early into my management career, I realized that the perceptions of others has a tremendous affect on the opportunities extended to you within an organization. I made it a point on a regular basis to seek feedback from others in my work environment who worked at different levels. This provided me with my “grapevine” reputation and allowed me to adjust actions that were not in alignment with the personal brand I am building.

    • Yes, Jackie! Exactly the type of advise the new workforce could use. Developing good relationships with peers as well as managers can be helpful when harvesting the fruit from the “grapevine.” I think it’s healthy to keep checking on your pulse within the organization you are serving, helping you to properly cultivate that personal brand your trying to create. Having relationships you can trust really becomes even more powerful than a position or a title you hold. Tapping into those relationships regarding how people perceive you, can be critical to your success in the workplace. Thanks for your insights!!

  3. Thanks for an excellent article. I’m referring several colleagues to it (as well as looking for ways to put it into practice myself).

    One quick question. In your “by line” it mentions that you are the co-author of “Situational Self Leadership in Action.”

    Tell us more about that. Is that a book? A blog site? As one who teaches SSL in our organization, I’d love to learn more.

  4. Thanks for your positive feedback, John. It’s very encouraging to collaborate on like-minded ideas. To be honest, this subject has been a lessoned learned for me in the workplace because of my fierce desire for independence. But in an effort to be the best you can be in the workplace, it’s really important to engages perceptions and protect your own personal brand as best you can.

    As for Situational Self Leadership in Action, it is an asynchronous learning program based on our traditional two-day classroom Self Leadership course. Rather than taking the program in two days, individuals learn the core concepts of Self Leadership through a series of podcasts and learning assignments, in partnership with their manager, which bakes the key learnings into real work that individuals are performing in the daily areas of responsibility.

    I’d be happy to talk to you more, offline, about the benefits of Self Leadership in Action, especially if you’re already a fan of the traditional Self Leadership class by Blanchard. My email address is jason.arnold@kenblanchard.com.

    Thanks again for you enthusiasm about the article, I’d love to hear what your colleagues think about it.

    Jason

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