Perception vs. reality

Perception is like an optical illusion that, when viewed, can cause a blind spot that tricks our brain into filling in the gaps or making assumptions because it looks like a piece of the image is missing. The same blind spots come into play when leaders look at things only from one perspective and ignore the behaviors of their teams, which causes them to assess the needs of the organization and team inadequately. If leaders look at things from only their perspective, the big picture is missed because what they perceive and what is happening in the organization is not always the same. This misinterpretation could damage the company culture.

When I think of culture, whether in the credit union or other industries, I think of the values and identity of an organization. Culture, while fluid, is created through consistent behaviors and attitudes and is manifested everywhere within the organization. Although, it has been said that if you want to know the company’s actual culture, ask the people at the bottom of the organizational chart. But why is that, and why would there be differences in opinion throughout the organization? Well, even leaders with the best intentions understand that fostering the desired culture and taking steps to ensure the right behaviors are shaping the culture is essential for the company’s growth. Still, there is a disconnect between leaders’ perceptions of employees’ experiences, what they care about, and what employees are truly experiencing.

Understanding the employee’s experience is essential to the culture of the organization. As leaders, how do you know what employees are experiencing, and how do you know that they will tell you the truth about those experiences? Do you have them swear under oath by placing their right hand on the employee handbook, asking do they solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Probably not!

Bridging the perception gap is necessary and possible but are leaders ready to hear the truth about the reality of employee experiences? Are they ready to hear all the side conversations after leaders thought they had a great team meeting giving details about the new organizational changes where no employee had feedback before making them? Deep down, I believe leaders want the truth, but there are some, as Jack Nicholson responded to Tom Cruise in the movie A Few Good Men…You can’t handle the truth!

So, are our perceptions the truth? I don’t necessarily agree with the saying that perception is reality because while there are times the representation of situations is accurate, there are times when our brains fill in the gaps with our assumptions, which may not be reflective of that situation. Still, I believe perception drives behavior. As mentioned, employee behavior defines the culture, so finding ways to fill the gaps with accurate information that reflects the employee’s experience is vital.

To fill that gap, let’s begin with trust. As with any relationship, including professional, trust is the foundation. Trust develops over time but can be lost instantly, so building and maintaining trust within the organization is imperative. It is not just an HR issue but a business issue that can impact the bottom line. Trust is developed when employees understand the leader’s decisions. Understanding why changes are made, how those changes impact them, and the expectations required to implement them successfully make all the difference to employees. Building or rebuilding trust takes time, but as those layers of mistrust are peeled away, perceptions change, and behaviors should begin shifting to reflect more of the desired culture.

Then there is communication. Miscommunication can significantly alter the employee’s perceptions. Furthermore, if trust is lacking in the workplace, employees’ experience with communication will be even more marred by perceptions because the relationship is shaky. Therefore, it is crucial to foster a culture of transparency. Transparent communication helps slow down the rumor mills that impact behaviors.

Leaders showing concern with how their message is received and perceived also helps counteract behaviors that do not align with the culture. Doing so encourages feedback, but leaders must be ready to listen actively and act, as not implementing employee ideas and suggestions could make employees less eager to provide feedback.

A culture where employee feedback is welcomed and leaders consistently consider and act on employee recommendations is critical to shifting behaviors that align with the desired culture. At this point, leaders are not threatened when employees question their decisions or leadership abilities, employees are not criticized because they are asking questions about the decisions made, trust is built, and the perception gap decreases.

Now leaders must connect on more of an emotional level to help bridge the perception gap. Some employees’ perceptions come from not being able to connect emotionally with the leaders, which causes a sense of fear if mistakes are made. Removing the big bad wolf persona and showing employees that you are human and vulnerable sometimes, even as a leader, helps with this connection. Taking time to engage with your employees on a different level and creating an environment where employees feel supported and valued will take your culture to a new level.

Leaders must take off rose-colored glasses to see the organization as it is to lead effectively. Yes, leaders have their perceptions about how things should operate, which should not be ignored, but they should not be nearsighted regarding others’ perceptions. Because the blind spot is no longer filled with assumptions but reality, the employee’s experiences and perceptions become more apparent, allowing leaders to use that as a learning opportunity to better understand the organization’s needs.

Joy Smith-Durant

Joy Smith-Durant

Dr. Joy Smith-Durant, DBA, serves as the Chief Lending Officer of Eagle Federal Credit Union. With over 20 years in the financial services industry, she has dedicated most of her ... Web: Details