Perception is reality – personal development won’t occur without pain


  • Business
  • Saturday, 20 Apr 2013

“PERCEPTION is reality”. This is a common phrase people use to perceive who we really are rather than who we think we are.

It is often used to make the point that it doesn't matter what the reality is; the perception that people have is what matters.

When we look at a mirror we see who we are, but when others see us they don't see what we see. Which picture is reality? Our view of ourselves or other people's view of us? Which is a more accurate reflection of who we are?

At work, when an executive is perceived to be a non-team player or have an overly dominant personality, can this be true when the person does not feel that it is correct or justified.

The typical reaction when the perception is not flattering is to be defensive.

The common argument is that the view is wrong, unfair or prejudiced. Perhaps, it is based on only one incident. People should instead look at the overall picture. Someone has an axe to grind. This person is not qualified to give honest and objective feedback.

When we are in a position of power or seniority it is easy to lose sense of our behaviour and the impact of our actions. We have a “paternalistic” view that all we do is part and parcel of delivering value and results in the organisation. There will always be disgruntled people and bad perceptions.

One of the most powerful tools in allowing us the opportunity to see ourselves as others see us is the 360° feedback. It is feedback from supervisors, peers and people who report to us. There is usually a required minimal number of feedback. The feedback consists of rating of the individual and ad verbatim comments on what to continue, stop and start doing. It is anonymous and conducted independently. There is nothing more potent than anonymous feedback from the people who have worked and interacted with us.

While 360° degree is an effective tool for feedback how others perceive us, it is not introduced when organisations are not ready to embrace bottom-up feedback or reinforce a culture where leaders' behaviours and actions are as important as the results delivered.

In leadership development courses, a good amount of time is spent upfront gathering feedback and activities on self assessment or self reflection. It is important to have the self-awareness of who we are, our strengths and weaknesses and who we can be.

When I did my first 360° degree feedback 17 years ago in 1996, the results were certainly a revelation! If there was a choice, most executives would rather do away with such feedback; it was that painful. But that would mean missed opportunity to address the behaviours that were necessary to progress and be a better leader.

Over the years, especially having multiple 360° feedback from different groups of people, I realise that perception is reality, regardless whether I agreed with it or liked it.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we can be a different person to different people and in different situations.

We tailor our tact and demeanour to the importance/level of the person who are dealing with. For instance, if it is a client or an important person, then, it will be utmost respect, politeness and patience. However, with others, we may not always be the same.

When all is going well, we can be the nicest boss one can have. But when we are under pressure or when there is a crisis, we can be the opposite or a totally different person.

In change we often tackle the systems, the processes and the structures. However a major part of change is personal. Personal development and growth rarely occurs without pain.

If we allow ourselves to sweep away negative perceptions of us with justifications, we remove the pain for change. We deny the perception, we deny the reality.

The turning point is “acceptance” when we accept the feedback and believe that perception is indeed reality! Only then can we approach what might be even more difficult: acting on it. ● Joan Hoi was a partner in a global management consulting company and author of Take on Change. She shared that, “For sentimental reasons, I have kept my first 360° feedback in 1996. Although it was 17 years ago, I can still remember the combination of denial, disappointment and embarrassment that I felt then. Receiving the feedback was painful, but I certainly benefited from it”.

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