Their Perception is Your Reality

Posted 12.02.2011

As an executive coach, a big part of my job is helping my clients adjust their behaviors so that they get different results. Since my clients are executives, they are, by definition, dealing with other people. Since that’s the case, it’s not enough for my clients to adjust their behaviors when it would make a difference to do so. They also have to manage the perception others have of their behaviors.

If you’re a leader, the simple fact is this. Their perception is your reality. Whatever the perception is that people have of your leadership effectiveness creates the reality you’re operating in.

Let’s say, for instance, that you’re not a great listener. You interrupt people, talk over people and ignore the input of other people. You get feedback that all of that is killing productivity and engagement. You hire a coach and start working on changing your ways. You become really conscious of not interrupting people and even start keeping score for yourself in meetings about how often you’re doing that. After a couple of months of this routine, your numbers are way down. Then, about a hundred days into the process, you have a bad day. You walk all over your team members in a staff meeting, cutting them off right and left.

So, even though you’ve had 99 days in a row of improving your behavioral performance, what are they thinking on day 100? Here’s what they’re thinking – “Same old, same old.” You’re not going to get much credit for the past 99 days and, even worse, you may have set yourself back with the group by falling off the wagon on the hundredth day.

Is the answer that you have to be perfect once you start on a path of behavioral change and never show any regression? Fortunately, no. It’s not even possible to do that. What you do have to do, though, is help your colleagues change their perception of you while you’re changing your behavior.

Here’s a simple plan for doing that that works for my clients:

1. Tell them up front what you’re working on. For example, say, “I’ve gotten feedback that I need to be a better listener and I’m going to work on getting better at that so that everyone has a better chance for their ideas to be heard.”

2. Ask for their ideas. A simple way to do that in this example would be to ask, “What are your one or two best ideas for anyone who is working on being a better listener?” Write their ideas down and pick one or two that you can implement in real life. The criteria is to pick action steps that are easy to do and likely to make a difference.

3. Ask for their help. For instance, if your action step is to interrupt people less, ask people to help you by giving you a friendly signal (or unfriendly if that works better for you) when you’re interrupting them. That will not only help you change your behavior but it also directs their perception towards your behavior change.

4. Ask for their perception. After you’ve been on the change path for a few weeks, start asking your colleagues what they’re noticing and what difference it’s making. Chances are that you’ll hear you’re making progress and it’s making a difference. That’s good evidence of behavioral change. Just as important, though, is to give your colleagues the chance to say out loud on a regular basis that they see you changing (if, in fact, you are). Drawing their attention to the change is what helps change their perception. Stay engaged with them on the behavior change and what they’re seeing.  The line of progress won’t be straight up and to the right. Everyone has bad moments or days. But, by staying engaged in this way, you can change your behavior and their perception of your behavior.

You can accelerate the process and raise the performance of the organization as a whole if you focus on managing the perception of your behavior while you work on changing your behavior. Their perception is your reality. If you want to change the reality, you have to change the perception.

That’s what I see in my work. What do you see in yours? What have you seen about how the team’s perception creates the reality for the leader? What ideas or experience do you have to share about managing that connection?