Over the past month, as I have been debriefing Leadership 360’s assessment with gifted and talented leaders, I have been in several conversations regarding perception vs. intention. It is not uncommon for a leader’s image of themselves — how they are and how they show up as a leader — to be perceived differently by the people they lead and those to whom they report. This dissonance can invite a pause for reflection on intention and delivery. Is there work to be done around knowing oneself better?
Ask yourself, how adept do you believe you are at communicating your true intentions, your authentic self and managing perceptions? Even experienced, successful leaders have had their intentions misinterpreted. Most of us have some demonstrable deficiencies when it comes to influencing others.
“You can influence people’s perceptions of you by playing to their needs. Once you understand how to make other people feel comfortable with you, you’ve won their approval.”
— Corporate marketing consultant Camille Lavington, You’ve Only Got Three Seconds (Main Street Books, 1998)
A leader’s words may be misinterpreted, misquoted and/or taken out of context. Communicating and managing perceptions can pose significant challenges. Leaders cannot succeed without consistently and accurately communicating their authentic thoughts and intentions. If you want to shape others’ perceptions, you must be mindful of who your audience is and how you deliver the message.
Major problems can occur when listeners distort your words to fit their existing assumptions or views. Their prevailing agendas and beliefs may prevent them from hearing or trusting your message. In addition, we all have a slightly different ‘common sense’ based on our unique strengths profile.
I know how easily this workplace dynamic can occur and can be frustrating. In fact, it’s often biased, incomplete, unconscious, inflexible and largely automatic. I hear this from the leaders I work with. It is a challenge for all leaders to be able to step outside their own perspective and discern where the breakdown in communication occurred.
Think of your last verbal workplace exchange. You probably thought that you explained yourself well and that your listeners understood.
The simple truth is: You, and they, likely did not.
How, then, can we ensure that people hear what we say and understand our intention?
The Perception Process
Perceivers (your audience), through their lens of logic, are prone to perceptual interpretations based on their common sense. It is possible that we can identify and anticipate what some of those patterns might be. Understanding this predisposition allows us to unlock and reframe the perception puzzle. As leaders, we can adjust our words and actions to send desired messages.
Listeners experience a flurry of brain activity as they try to understand what you are saying through using their perceptual lens. They are also sizing you up, forming opinions of you and your message, comparing you to others, and remembering similar situations and opinions.
Most of what happens in perceivers’ minds is automatic and unconscious. This is Phase 1 of the perception process, and it is riddled with bias.
In Phase 2, perceivers use the part of the brain concerned with logic and reason. This requires more effort and energy to pause and think through what the other person is saying or asking. Consequently, it is sometimes avoided.
More often than not, Phase 2 is modestly activated. People form opinions of you and your message with Phase 1 assumptions — and then they move on.
Most leaders do not stop to think about how they communicate information and requests or how their audience may hear it. They are unaware that people can have different common senses or that they take in information completely different than intended.