Their Perception is Your Reality

Posted 07.05.2012

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of colleague feedback reports for new executive coaching clients. I just finished one a little while ago actually. Most of the time when I deliver the feedback to the client it goes pretty well. They may have a few surprises but, being the high achievers that they are, are committed to getting better.

Sometimes, though, I face a client who wants to argue with the feedback. The argument can take many forms from “They don’t understand,” to “They’re just wrong.” After letting my client vent for a little while, my response to the argument is something like, “You may be right. Maybe they are wrong, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because their perception is your reality.”

I’ve yet to have a client argue with that point. After thinking about it for a few moments, they usually nod and say, “Yeah, that’s right.”

When you’re taking on the work of becoming a more effective leader, you usually will want to focus on adopting or changing one or two behaviors that will make the biggest difference. You also, though, need to focus on the perceptions that others have of your behaviors.  Because you work and lead in a system full of people, your overall effectiveness will depend as much on changing their perception as on changing your behavior.

Here are three things to keep in mind as you do that:

  1. You actually have to change some behaviors: You can’t change perceptions without actually changing some behaviors. As I’ve written here before, start with something that’s easy to do and likely to make a difference. You’ll be amazed at how much leverage and momentum you can get from relatively simple changes.
  2. You have to help people see the change you’re making: Don’t wait for people to notice because they won’t. They’re too busy and preoccupied with their own stuff. Tell them what you’re working on and occasionally ask them if what you’re doing is making a difference. When they stop and think about it, they’ll probably recognize that it is. You’re on your way to changing their perceptions.
  3. You need to be patient: Don’t expect people’s perceptions of you to turn on a dime. Particularly if there’s a long held story about you, it will take people awhile to groove the new story about you. Perception changes almost always lag actual behavior changes. Keep at it and be patient.

What about you? What’s been your experience with changing your colleagues’ perception of how you show up as a leader?