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

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In today’s article, I take an instance of when a manager feels compelled to use the line “There’s a perception that. . .” as a means to give performance feedback.  For example, a manager may intend to “help” the employee by saying, “There’s a perception that you are difficult to work with.”  The implied notion is that the perception is the negative impact, and “being difficult to work with” is the behavior that needs to change.

However, this is badly given performance feedback, and there is an alternative!

Citing perceptions as feedback is the reverse order of good performance feedback, so let’s turn it around.

Here are the (compressed) steps for giving performance feedback:

  1. Start with the context
  2. Describe the observed behavior
  3. (Only if it isn’t clear what the impact is) cite the impact of the behavior
  4. Offer alternate behavior.

Let’s take the example of a manager who attempts to give feedback by saying the following:

“There’s a perception that you’re difficult to work with.”

By leading with the perception, manager reverses the order of feedback and eliminates the other steps.  It starts and ends with the so-called impact: The negative perception of being difficult to work with.   Aside from the generalization of the employee being difficult to work with, there are no cited behaviors that lead up to the perception.  The impact, however ephemeral, is the feedback.

Properly given feedback needs to include the context, behaviors, and then the impact (and that impact isn’t entirely necessary), and then the alternate behavior.  So instead of “There’s a perception that you are difficult to work with,” it could be constructed as the following:

1. (Context) In your request last week for a new report. . .

2. (Behavior) You wrote in the email, “Don’t be stupid. . .”

(You might want to have a discussion at this point in the feedback to ask the feedback receiver why they wrote this)

3a. (Impact – Using the “perception” impact) “This creates the perception that you are difficult to work with”

4. (Alternate recommended behavior) Instead of calling the recipient “stupid”, take this content out of your email and stick to the request.


Once adding the more of the appropriate steps for giving performance feedback, it shows a few things:

  1. The impact of the behavior is clearer.  In this example, when the manager cited only the impact of (that there is a perception that the employee is difficult to work with), it misses out the other, much more substantial impacts of the behavior: “Your comment eroded the efforts we’ve made to make this a positive work environment.”  There are other impacts as well: “Your comment did not make it any more likely to get the report on time.”  If you are relying on perceptions to give performance feedback, then you are probably actually missing out of more significant impacts of negative behaviors – if there are any.
  2. Citing the impact isn’t entirely necessary.  When focusing on the behavior, it reveals the impact more clearly in the discussion.  The person receiving the feedback could likely offer their own version of what the impact is: “I bet they didn’t like it when I wrote that.”  It is not necessary to inventory all of the negative impacts of a behavior.  As long as the person receiving the feedback sees that it is a negative impact, then this step can be considered completed.
  3. Focuses on the new expected behavior.  With the behavior-based feedback, you stop worrying about the perceptions and focus more on whether the behaviors will be corrected.  This new focus will drive at behaviors that will improve perceptions over time.  So if you are worried about changing perceptions, you need to get to the behaviors the need to change.

So there is how you can transform the urge to use perceptions, get rid of the perceptions line, and turn it into better, more effective performance feedback.

In my next article, I will discuss how managing perceptions are often used to undermine desired behavior in the workplace.

Related articles:

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

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: How this undermines efforts for change

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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 .

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