Using perceptions to manage: Three more reasons “There’s a perception that. . .” should be removed from a manager’s vocabulary
This article is a continuation of a series on a common manager mistake: Using perceptions to give feedback to employees. Think about a manager who says, “There’s a perception that. . . you are having a tough time at work” or “There’s a perception that things don’t come easily to you” (and all of the other perceptions that may or may not be out there).
In my previous article, I described how this doesn’t meet the standard of performance feedback, it shifts performance to a phantom job of managing perceptions, and it transitions the manager away from the role of setting the tone for the team.
In today’s article, I cite more reasons using “there’s a perception that. . .” is hazardous. This time with the focus on the inherent difficulty of managing perceptions, or managing to perceptions
4. It doesn’t really matter if the perception reflects what is true
One of the impressive things about the line, “There’s a perception that. . .” is that it doesn’t matter if the perceptions are true. In fact, if a manager is resorting to the “There’s a perception that. . .” line, the perception is by definition a candidate for being false. Because if the perception were true, then the manager wouldn’t have to use the “there’s a perception that. . .” line. For example, compare the following:
a) “There’s a perception that you are always late.”
b) “You are always late.”
In option a, it doesn’t matter if the employee is always late or not. That’s not what’s being debated. In option b, the employee can (and should) debate the actual frequency of being late (since it is highly unlikely that the employee is always late). However, the perception can be true. So if the manager uses the “perceptions” qualifier, it shuts down the ability to pursue what is true.
5. The perceptions themselves don’t even have to be true
The truth behind the perception doesn’t have to be true, but the perception itself doesn’t have to be true, either! By using the passive voice of “there is a perception that” (instead of Jim has the perception that. . .”, and by using an imagined reality, the perception itself can and frequently is the opposite of what the perceptions are. All it takes is the manager to make up that there is a perception of something, while all others can have the exact opposite perceptions.
Here’s an example:
“There’s a perception that you have not been participating in the strategy development meetings.”
Never mind whether the employee has actually participated in the strategy development meetings. In this example, we focus on whether the perception is true. It is entirely possible that all attendees have the perception that the employee did participate in the strategy meeting, but the manager can still assert that the employee didn’t participate. As a result, this creates the phantom job for the employee: Finding out and correcting who has what perception, and then correcting those who have the incorrect perception.
When this happens, most likely, it is the manager himself who has the negative perception.
6. It defers away from those actual tasks that create positive perceptions
Managing perceptions is hard. But it is even harder when the act of managing perceptions becomes external to doing the work that creates positive perceptions. The options to sway perceptions without doing the actual thing that creates perceptions are limited to creating counter perception through formal and informal communications. This means using techniques like seeking out those with the perceptions and starting arguments and using hyperbolic rhetoric (“I have never been late!”), issuing communications that contradict the perceptions, attacking those with the negative perceptions with counter-negative perceptions, whisper campaigns, complaining, etc.
When a manager points out negative perceptions, this becomes encouragement to start a series of new behaviors designed to manipulate and alter thinking. If the employee can identify the parties amplifying the negative perceptions, expect the employee to create alliances, start counter-gossip and new false perceptions about these parties. The employee should be expected to use confrontational and non-confrontational methods. It can escalate to all-out war of perceptions, gossip, and likely some fighting.
This is entirely undesirable of course, but if a manager wants employees to manage perceptions, the manager should expect the employees to use the common techniques that manage perceptions. Expect many of these techniques to backfire and mismanage perceptions.
In my next article, I discuss some more unintended consequences of managers trying to manage perceptions.