Perception vs. Reality

Once when in the employee of a non-profit social service type agency (touchy-feely type of place) I was called into the office of a vice president. He asked me to be seated and struck up a conversation concerning a recent meeting in which I had stated some strong opinions about the subject up for discussion. He assured me that my comments, while strong were nothing inappropriate for the type of meeting it was. However, feedback he received made it clear that some folks in the meeting were “uncomfortable” with my remarks and the conviction with which they were made. I reminded him that I had remained silent until directly asked and then asked him if what I said was wrong or off the mark in some way. His reply was “no, but” I had still made them feel uncomfortable.

Then he turned the topic of conversation to a complaint that had been made about me to the COO by another Director who was a long time friend of the COO. I had not given into a request by this Director to make use of one of my staff members whenever this Director felt the need to use her. In essence I had not given subjugated one of my human capital resources to the whims of her felt needs. Now I will be the first to tell you that I can be blunt at times. When asked my opinion I will give it in a forthright manner that will not always make you feel good. Also, I will readily admit to wanting to have a good deal to say about the resources given to me, especially when someone tries to appropriate them for their use without really consulting me.

The vice president then said these words “I don’t disagree with what you said in the meeting and I know that the other Director is a bit of a whiner and she is friends with the COO but Emmett, you’re being perceived as uncooperative. You’re getting a reputation for …” Of course I was struck by these words. Me? Uncooperative? Me?  I assured him that it was not my intent to be uncooperative and then he said “but you’re being perceived that way and you know that perception is reality, it’s the perception that counts”.

I was a bit non-plused. As I started to offer a reply he cut me off and said “You should be thankful that I’m telling you this so that you are aware of how you are being perceived.” At that point I said nothing else. I knew that it would have been futile. Thanking him for taking the time to share this with me I turned and left.

You may have heard that old maxim before or you may have been told at one point in your career that “It’s perception that counts” or you may have heard it said or even been told “Perception is reality”. You may have had it used on you in a feedback meeting similar to mine. You may have heard it in a more positive vein.  I don’t know if you agree with the sentiments of those words or not. You may very well buy into the philosophy behind those words. A philosophy that really screams “We value how we think things are, not how things really are.” and “We prefer style over substance!”

“Perception is reality”. Agree with the statement or disagree with the statement, like what it implies or don’t like what it implies, it doesn’t matter.  What does matter for your career and for your sanity is that you recognize it as an operational truth. It operates as a fact to one degree or another in every work place, at all times. It is a fact in the workplace even if it is not a fact that you except. After all your experience or what you have accomplished does not define reality … evidently the perception of other does.

So read this next part carefully, even slowly, then write it down and commit it to memory.

 “Perception is not reality. Perception is just perception. Reality is reality. However, other people’s perceptions can define (or control) your reality. What you must do is control the perceptions of others so that you control your reality.”

That’s right, agree or disagree with the statement and philosophy but learn to use it to improve your lot in the workplace and in life. How do you do that? The simple answer is by any means necessary. The reality is you have to:

  • be aware and observe
  • be wise and think
  • act and adjust accordingly

“It’s the price you pay, for the life you choose.”

First, be aware and take stock and observe how your department or organization operates in general or a particular situations. In the workplace you need to be on the lookout for and ask yourself, “What is the culture here?”, “Who has the power, the real power, to affect your career both positively and negatively?”

Secondly, raise your level of awarness. You need to get a real feel for the company and department politics, get the lay of the land. Whose turf is it? Who likes who? Who dislikes who and why? Who is allied with who and why? Stay non-partial in this discovery phase. Keep your ears open and your mouth shut. Take it all in. The things you will observe all mean something. Very little that you see or hear will be happening by accident or coincidentally and not everything will be as it appears. People in the workforce, the wise ones any way, are all working their game plan to advance their careers, protect their careers, or squash an enemy or opposition to them or their plans. Knowing these things will help you in dealing with them.

Third, be wise. After taking in all the information, reflect on it, crank up the critical thinking skills and, as you reflect on all that you have observed, constantly ask yourself this question “What does this tell me?” After you have spent some time doing that it’s time to drill down a little further and ask yourself “What are the expectations?” These expectations can be both spoken and unspoken, explicit or tacit. They can extend to things such as expectations regarding behavior between peers, towards the boss, in the hallways, in meetings, at company functions, the expectations that will make you be perceived as a “good employee” and a “valuable member” of the team.

Finally, act and adjust accordingly. Once you have gathered the information through your observations and carefully orchestrated conversations with others, have spent time reflecting on what you have learned, and developed and understanding how you can use or apply what you have learned it is then time to put it all into practice. At this point you must make a decision. You have to decide how you want to be perceived. This is one of the few choices many of you will get to make in the work place.  Make it a wise choice because you will live with the consequences for good or for ill for a very long time. This choice will directly impact your career, your future advancement, and your job satisfaction. To quote Michael Corleone in Godfather III “It’s the price you pay, for the life you choose.”

If the expectations are, in your estimation worth adhering to, implement whatever changes you need to make quickly. Act decisively whatever it is. Change your dress. Upgrade you speech. Project a positive, can do attitude. Be seen doing the “right” things, whatever those may be. Make it a point to talk to the “right” people, whoever they may be. Make sure you are always on your best corporate behavior so that no one can say anything against you. The details I leave to you, the implementation is yours to figure out. But be sure to be perceived as you want to be perceived.

One last word of advice.  As you decide whether or not to enjoin this game, you should never go against your values. While you get to make the choice on how you want to be perceived, if you will play the game, and to what extent you will play the game, in the end you have to be able to look yourself in the face every morning and to live with your decisions. You also have to be able to pay your bills. There is a balance to be struck. And remember whatever your decision … “It’s the price you pay for the life you choose.”

Me? What did I do? I took stock, made changes to what I was doing, changed their perception of me, and then started looking for a job that was a better fit for my values.