When I begin working with a new organization and incrementally along the way [if it is a long term project] I utilize employee surveys for feedback. I also conduct group interviews and solicit individual feedback to gauge if initiatives are working and the specific impact(s) they are having. In my framework assessment period I always conduct a company wide electronic engagement survey. This survey is 100% anonymous and the organization supports “thanks for participation” event if we hit a 90% survey rate which encourages most team members to provide feedback. Additionally, during this period I closely examine communication channels and effectiveness. I observe team and company meetings and assess how teams work together. Towards the end of the project framework assessment period I submit the results of first survey to the executive team and it is always – without exception – an eye-opening result for the organization and the most senior-level leadership. Eye-opening in a shocking and less-than-yay way.
The reaction of most retail company leadership always surprises me as in my two decades of working there has always existed a very palpable and, usually, tangible disconnect between what philosophies the organizations I have worked with espouse and the reality of the environment for most people working in it, especially, at a mid- and junior- leadership level.
Perception is how we view reality, ourselves, others and the world around us. It’s a cognitive process by which we select, organize, assign meaning, and adapt to the things we encounter every day. Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or are interpreted. We often collapse the two and assume our perceptions are the truth, doing so without even realizing we are doing it. What this means is people’s perception is their reality. In the workplace, perception drive peoples attitude, productivity, beliefs, and behaviors. Perception impacts whether or not people embrace change. It impacts the level of trust they have in their leaders and their ability and willingness to actively engage and collaborate. Perceptions shape the actual and real culture of every organization. When executive and senior-level corporate leadership learns about the real reality of their business they are usually shaken as it is so different from what they believe it to be.
WHY IS THE PERCEIVED REALITY SO DIFFICULT TO DIGEST
[AND SO DIFFERENT FROM WHAT WE INTENDED]
I hear lots executives talk about their company’s mission statement, organizational values, and the business strategy. I ask a lot of questions around these things during my first two weeks working with an organization.
- How often do the employee facing leaders talk about these things with their teams?
- Have they measured how effectively this is being communicated monthly and quarterly?
- How are these things measured?
- How often are we recognizing results around these things when people help get us closer to our objectives?
- Are we rewarding individuals and teams who are keeping the promise around these things and propelling the company toward it’s objectives consistently?
These questions are very rarely answered with the exception of, “Well sure…every store has our mission statement and the values on a poster in their backroom. We have magnet on the fridge in the employee break stations here [headquarters]. Every employee signs off on the handbook and it’s in there too”. Not good enough. Research suggests that only 30% of organizations and team’s execute business strategies effectively. Here is some reality to marinade in:
- 95% of leaders/managers within an organization say they do not fully understand what the strategy is;
- 75% of leaders/managers do not have any stake in the success of the strategy;
- 85% of leaders spend less than one hour a month talking about strategy.
Our perception is based in something called heuristic technique. Heuristic, is any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but “good enough” for the immediate moment. Where finding an optimal solution is not possible or impractical, heuristic methods can be used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution. Heuristics can be mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision. Most of us define this technique by using the terms; “rule of thumb”, “an educated guess”, “guesstimate”, “common sense”, and/or when we employ our intuition as a form of intelligence.
We rely on heuristics not because we don’t care about other’s intentions or objectives. But because we simply don’t have the time to conduct a detailed analysis on every single new person we meet or event we encounter so we draw from previous experiences with similar people or problems. These strategies rely on using readily accessible, though – frequently – loosely applicable, information to control problem solving in human beings and abstract issues.
A BITTER PILL OF REALITY
One of the most recent examples I have of perception vs. reality: I was helping a former colleague and a friend of mine who was having challenges getting his new team to deliver results after he’d spent a “significant” amount of time coaching and encouraging this inherited team. After some discussion, I sent out a survey to his team and we were able to capture approximately 75% of the entire team’s feedback – which was excellent. The overwhelming response when asked what they would like to coach their leader on was…”He is impatient with me and I wish he would communicate in a more supportive way“. Once I’d compiled the data, I delivered my findings over a martini. His response was “I’m not impatient! I am passionate!”. Uh…that’s not what your team’s reality is. Their reality is that you are pushy and you don’t encourage two-way communication. They are shutting down and are disengaged. He gave me a 10 minute explanation as to why that feedback was wrong. There was a huge disconnect in his ability to see himself as others see him. As a colleague and a friend I see him as driven, passionate, and smart. His employees experience with him was assigned words and phrases such as; “abrupt”, “self-serving”, and “has a hidden-agenda”. Following a long and heavy conversation, we determined his challenge, primarily, was in his communication with his team and his ability to support and inspire his level of passion into his team and galvanize their own excitement and potential. After our dialog he recognized that he had to accept and publicly acknowledge this feedback with his team and once he did that and thanked them for their candor, he committed to being a leader that listens and is working on his development in this area – their collective performance, productivity, and collaboration has been on the rise. Everything is not yet perfect , but it is getting better and the team is getting stronger [and happier] consistently.
THOUGHTS ON HOW TO UNTANGLE PERCEPTION FROM REALITY
Most companies that I am lucky enough to work with have the overwhelming desire to create healthy, vibrant, high-performing, and highly-productive organizations that are talent magnets and focused on delivering the highest level of customer experience that will differentiate them from competition and result in growth and sustainability. Understanding the perceptions of your people and the culture [which is the reality of the environment] can help organizations navigate change, growth, and strategy. Here are some of the more common coaching points I communicate around perception vs. reality:
Challenge Assumptions: Before you elevate your thoughts and perceptions to reality, ask questions, explore alternate points of view, solicit feedback from a variety of sources. [For example: Don’t assume everyone knows the mission statement, values, and strategy of the organization – assume they don’t. Work and communicate with that in mind.]
Suspend Judgement: According to Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, a member of U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s advisory board, and author of the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, our “brains are naturally wired to focus on the negative, which can make us feel stressed and unhappy even though there are a lot of positive things in our lives“. As a result, when we employ the heuristic technique, we tend to focus on negatives when making judgements. Sometimes being hyper-critical of others is an effort to deflect attention away from our own shortcomings or an attempt, by comparison, to make ourselves appear to be better. Very seldom is this thinking accurate or productive and it certainly isn’t healthy for professional or personal growth.
Employ Critical Thinking: People and challenges are very rarely – if ever – black and white. Be willing to explore gray areas. Read, learn, self-develop, ask questions of people who are wildly different from you, challenge yourself to apply a different resolution than what you normally would to the issue [because it’s likely quite different from what you think]. Close the gap between perception and reality by seeking the objective truth, not just what conveniently aligns with what you think and believe today.
Let Go Of Your Need To Be Right: Make room for new information and points-of-view to change and challenge your perspective. Be open to the contribution of others and embrace being open and inclusive in communication. You will build trust and respect this way.
Beware Of Negative & Unconscious Biases: We all possess them and we rely on them to shape our reactions and perceptions of the people and the world around us. These are preconceived judgements we assign without being aware of it. There are more than 150 types of cognitive biases, such as: race, gender, education, socio-economic status, religious beliefs, political beliefs, how people dress, how they speak, etc. These biases present in how we hire, promote, lead, and interact with each other. Some of the ways they influence our perceptions:
- Halo Effect – when one trait [either positive or negative], spills over to an overall judgment of that person or group of people
- Affinity Bias – liking people who are most similar to you
- Confirmation Bias – seek information that confirms what we already believe to be true
Lean In To Uncomortable Situations: Most of us choose to play it safe and work within the status quo. That rarely supports the elevation and visibility of great leaders. Being safe is super boring and it leads to stagnation and complacency. And in retail and other industries that can have very distressing consequences on both a large and small scale. When something feels outside of alignment with your current thinking and it starts to feel uncomfortable, lean into that. If you accept the idea that discomfort begets growth, you’ll build a intensely rewarding habit of seeking alternate information to understand the actual reality of what you are facing. You will grow and stretch in your development and you will teach others that it is competency that is valuable.