Using perceptions to manage: How this undermines efforts for change
This is the latest in a series of articles about how using perceptions in managing a team can be a recipe for disaster.
Think about the manager who says, “There’s a perception that you expect too much of other people” or “There’s a perception that you are not very well liked.” This is the manager attempting to manage perceptions and not behaviors, and is something that needs to be banned from the manager’s vocabulary. I provide reasons here, here, here, here and here (there’s a perception that this is a very thorough series!).
In today’s article, I discuss how negative perceptions are often a symptom of positive change:
In a previous article I discuss the scenario of Arnold, a team member that provided suggestions and helped implement changes on a team that produced greater productivity and lower cost. In the process, there were some negative perceptions about Arnold, “You’ve done a lot of things since joining the team, but there’s a perception that you want to change things too fast, and that you expect the team to do too much.” Let’s take a look at what this means:
Citing perceptions often reveals change agents at work and then undermines them
If a manager can cite only negative perceptions of someone as the negative impact, then this could be an indicator that the person could actually a positive change agent in the workplace. Many people are resistant to change, and when someone brings it to the organization, that resistance will manifest as undifferentiated negative perceptions that quickly propagate through the organization. The actual change may be good and improve things, but with any change the initial perception is that the change is bad in some way.
In the example of Arnold above, he created positive change with the positive results of the organization. The down-side of the change is that there are some negative perceptions of what Arnold does, i.e. “Arnold is making us do stuff we don’t want to do.”
Many managers will get very nervous about this negative response to change, and instead of supporting the change, they will support the negative response and try to mitigate it. Managers will focus their efforts at whatever Arnold is doing and get him to stop or change what he is doing.
So if a manager feels the urge to give feedback to an employee that there is a negative perception of what they are doing, this should immediately be given a second thought to the manager that perhaps the employee is actually a change agent who is activating the “antibodies” of the organization to attack the change agent.
If the manager does not want the change agent to make changes, then the feedback needs to be given to the employee that the organization does not need change and is fine the way it is (however unlikely and absurd this is). If the manager wants the employee to keep making the changes, then the manager should focus the attention at giving the feedback to the employees about handling change in the organization.
Many managers want it both ways: They want change for the better, but without their team experiencing the symptoms of change, such as resistance and complaints about the change.
As a result, managers will choose the path of trying to get the change agent to manage perceptions of the change agent’s actions. It is a path that undermines the change, implies that the status quo is acceptable, and the manager him or herself is resistant to change.
It also defers the work of managing change to the change agent himself, when this is precisely something that the manager has greater power to control.
So if you are a manager and are starting to get worried about some grumblings on the team, the first course of action is to consider whether the grumblings are natural by-products of change. Make sure you don’t immediately undermine the desired positive change by becoming part of the attack on the change agent.