Using perceptions to manage: Three reasons why this messes things up

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Today I start a series of articles on managers using perceptions to manage.  A common way that managers attempt to do this is to use perceptions as a way of giving performance feedback and starting conversations with “There’s a perception that. . .”   This is an indicator that the manager is attempting to manage perceptions.   Here’s what I mean:

Have you ever had a manager give you feedback that starts with the words, “There’s a perception that. . .”?  It may sound like this:

“There’s a perception that you aren’t delivering.”

“There’s a perception that you aren’t keeping up.”

“There’s a perception that you’re always late.”

“There’s a perception that you aren’t a team player.”

Managers who use the phrase, “There’s a perception that . . .” are attempting to manage perceptions.  Here are the reasons that the phrase, “There’s a perception that. . .” need to be removed from a manager’s vocabulary and the effort to manage perceptions need to be refocused to other pursuits:

1.     This may be feedback, but it isn’t Performance Feedback.

Managers attempt to manage perceptions via giving feedback on the perceptions.  Using perceptions as the basis for feedback means that the feedback is on a phantom job external to the actual job.   The performance of the employee — what the employee has actually done — has been removed from the feedback.  The new implication is that the employee needs to manage perceptions in addition to doing the job.  By giving this feedback, the manager has actually removed the duties of doing the actual job, and has inadvertently assigned new, and presumably more important duties to the employee: manage perceptions.

2.     You’ve promoted the employee to manager. . . of perceptions

If you think managing a team is tough, how about managing perceptions?  At least with team management, you know who your team is and likely have some sort of idea what the deliverables of the team are.  But managing perceptions – this is really hard to do, as the sheer lack of tangibility of where, who and what the perceptions are have not been identified.  Yet we ask our employees to manage these as though there is some sort of way to do this.  Perhaps we should start a new field, “Perception Management Design. . .”

3.     It defers the manager’s responsibility of managing perceptions

It’s one thing to “give feedback” to an employee about the perceptions (and inadvertently assign this new phantom job to the employee), but it’s another to not assist in this.  The manager likely has a lot more to do with managing perceptions of team members than the team members themselves.  When a manager says, “There’s a perception that. . .” to an employee, the manager should have said, instead, and to him or herself, “What can I do to improve the perception?” and start thinking about what the manager can do to improve the perception.  No feedback necessary to the employee – unless, after introspection, the manager can find some actual behaviors that the employee needs to change, and at that point it’s not the perceptions that need to change, it’s the behaviors.

In my next article, I’ll continue the discussion of the inherent difficulty and absurdity of managing using perceptions.

Related articles:

Using perceptions to manage: Three more reasons “There’s a perception that. . .” should be removed from a manager’s vocabulary

Using perceptions to manage: Three unintended consequences, or, how a manager can create a gossip culture in one easy step

Using perceptions to manage: Are positive perceptions cited?

Using perceptions to manage: What does this reveal about the manager?

Using perceptions to manage: What does this tell us about the manager’s feedback providing skills?

Using perceptions to manage: An example of how to transform a perception into improved performance feedback

Using perceptions to manage: How this undermines efforts for change

A tool for how to tell if feedback is relevant to your job

Performance feedback must be related to a performance

A model to determine if performance feedback is relevant to job performance

A second phantom job many employees have: Managing perceptions of others

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


8 Responses to “Using perceptions to manage: Three reasons why this messes things up”
  1. Daniel Rose says:

    What about that old saying, perception is reality?
    While I totally agree that performance should never be based on perception, it’s useful to understand perception to ensure effective communication and management.
    For me I guess it boils down to awareness of the perceptions one creates.
    Good post.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Daniel. The manager’s task should be to uncover the reality-based behaviors that create the perception, rather than start with the perception. A better version of the adage should be “reality begets perception.” The manager should focus on the behaviors that generate the perception, rather than lead with the perception. If a manager leads with perceptions, that’s the zone the manager and employee will be stuck in — debating the perceptions and their validity. That’s a tough zone to get out of!


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