You See What You Are Looking For

You have probably heard as often as I have that “perception is reality,” but the problem of perception is that you tend to see what you are looking for, whether it is there or not.

Here’s what happens: a person will form a perception about someone or something (usually based on an experience), and then will only see those things that reinforce that perception, therefore confirming its truth to that person. For example, if I have had an experience of clumsily stubbing my toe, I might begin to form the perception that I am ungraceful. I might then walk around my house for two weeks without stubbing my toe, but the next time I do stub my toe, I will say to myself, “see, look how ungraceful you are.” Rather than giving credit to how rarely I do it, I see the occasional time that I do, and see it as a confirmation of my clumsiness.

This happens all the time in organizations. Someone has a bad customer service experience, an unmet (or unrealistic) expectation, or has misinterpreted something due to misinformation or lack of context, and then they form a perception about you or about the organization. From that point forward, they tend to only notice those things that reinforce that perception.   So if they have formed a perception that you don’t care about your constituents, you may be demonstrating care frequently, but the next time you ignore their needs or don’t act helpful (whether unintentional or not), they see that as confirmation and reinforcement of their perception. Once that perception is in place, they will interpret everything through that lens.

As a school administrator, I have had several instances of a teacher being perceived as a poor communicator. In most of those circumstances, it began with the unintentional failure of the teacher to respond to a parent’s email. In some cases that parent’s email was flagged as spam, but more frequently, the parent had misspelled the teacher’s email address so the email was never received. Because there was no response, the parent began to believe the teacher did not communicate well with parents, and any email after that which did not receive a response reinforced that belief, and the parent began to spread that view among other parents. At that point, if the teacher answered a hundred emails and missed one, the one miss would reinforce the perception that had been formed. Once the issue came to light, it usually was a difficult process to correct that perception.

This can be frustrating, especially if you know the perception is wrong, and it can be very challenging and difficult to change. So what do you do when this happens? There are four practical steps you can take:

  1. Look for the truth in the perception. There was most likely some event or circumstance that initially prompted this perception. It may have been no fault of your own, or you may have simply messed up. Regardless, look for the mistake that has been made that needs to be corrected, whether it was a one-time event or an ongoing problem.
  2. Re-set. Address the cause of perception and take any necessary steps to correct what needs to be corrected. Communicate what you are doing to those who have been affected so that they can have an adjusted view (but also remember, they we likely be hesitant to believe any different until you prove otherwise).
  3. Over-compensate. For a period of time, you need to go overboard to counter the perception. People will be watching closely to see if their perception was valid or not, so you will be under scrutiny. This is going to be challenging and requires work, but it has to be done until expectations have been properly re-aligned.
  4. Create a new expectation. With the expectations appropriately established, now you can communicate the new (and realistic) expectations. If you have proven that you can be trusted, and have set realistic expectations that can be met, then you will start a new cycle of validating the new and positive perceptions.

Remember that we can be just as guilty of this perception error as anyone else; therefore it is important that we become self-aware about this problem of perception in ourselves. Check yourself, to make sure that you are seeing things correctly and that you not letting a single experience, misinformation, or incomplete information become the filter through which you are viewing everything. It is our tendency to see what we are looking for, and then to only see what reinforces the belief that has been formed. To change those perceptions requires intentional work.

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