The Power of Leadership Perception
Perception is a powerful thing. And, it is true that for many people, perception is reality. We form perceptions based on our first impressions, observations, past and current experiences, values and beliefs, and biases and stereotypes that we may hold. For leaders in particular, perception can affect their team dynamics, career and stakeholder advancement.
As a leader, it’s important to be aware of your own perceptual biases and shortcuts since they play a crucial role in the success of any leader. How we focus our attention deeply affects our perceptions. We are all constantly classifying people and situations, and subconsciously labelling them based on our past experiences. Anything that does not fit in this reality will be quickly dismissed and elements that might support our personal vision will be greatly used to reinforce it. In other words, we list people and experiences to avoid having to deal with uncertain behaviours or situations.
Perceptions are formed through interpretations that are around us (Wielheim Wundh,1879) throughout the workplace, and our day to day experiences on the job. Perception is created, established and can be influenced through varying types of communication - such as, discussions and conversations at meetings; written, through emails, policies and corporate guidelines; and through visual actions, the rolling of the eyes and hand jesters.
It’s possible to actively manage the perceptions others have of you as a leader. Chip Espinoza’s latest book, Millennials Who Manage: How to Overcome Workplace Perceptions and Become a Great Leader, co-authored by Joel Schwarzbart, is a fascinating read, backed by extensive research, that helps everyone better understand workplace perception dynamics. Let me share three quick things here:-
- Getting feedback: Most leaders typically don’t receive feedback very often. When they do receive feedback, it’s not always in the most constructive manner. However, effective feedback provides information that lets us know how we’re doing. Seek out people who have opportunities to observe your behavior, an interest in your effectiveness and can speak to you directly and honestly. Once you’ve received this feedback, take time to reflect and evaluate what you’ve heard. The Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said: “Knowing others is wisdom. Knowing yourself is enlightenment.”
- Walk the Talk: Especially now when employee confidence in organizations might have been shaken due changing business dynamics, leaders need to motivate and act with conviction. You need to continually communicate the reasons behind your decisions, especially the difficult ones. Do not forget to follow-through on your actions because without follow-through, this can lead to a negative perception of you as untrustworthy.
- Your circle of Influence: Leadership style has a huge impact on how employees feel and perform at work. Know the effect that stress has on you and how this looks to others. Most importantly, be visible at strategic moments, both the good and bad. Just listening to employees' ideas is a strong start. Be sure to thank your employees for continually thinking about ways to make your business better.
To conclude, perception is reality. No matter how you view yourself, your profile as a leader will be constructed for you by those with whom you work and interact. Socrates guiding rule was “know thyself.” Knowing oneself is imperative; however, it may be that your ability to understand how others perceive you will be a far more powerful tool to help you be a better leader.