Does Perception Stop Employee Performance?

Introduction

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I recommend relentlessly the value of measurable performance goals, performance standards and effective performance systems.

My opinion hasn’t changed!

But there is one less specific factor managers must acknowledge in seeking to improve employee on job performance. That factor is perception. And considering perception introduces consideration of two other related factors: expectation and consequences.

Defining “Perception”

The dictionary defines “perception” as the “action or ability of gaining knowledge through the senses”.

What “Perception” Is Not

Edward de Bono says, “Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic”. Perception isn’t a question of logic, reason and objectivity. For example, if your experience suggests that Edward de Bono is a noted authority on “thinking”, you’ll be impressed by my quoting his opinion.

But if you think, rightly or wrongly, that Mr. de Bono has nothing worthwhile to say, you’ll probably stop reading now. It won’t matter whether your opinion is accurate or not. Your perception of de Bono’s professional expertise will determine your response. If I quote him as an authority you’ll judge my professionalism based on your perception.

In case you aren’t a de Bono fan, may I quote famous French writer Gustave Flaubert, “There is no truth: there is only perception.”

And there’s one of the main reasons why “perception” must be acknowledged as a reality  by managers.

Perception’s Two Associates

“Perception” has two close associates: they are “expectations” and “consequences“. “Expectations”, so the dictionary tells us, is “a thing looked forward to, a prospect of future good, success and profit.”

“Consequences” are “acts or facts following as an effect or result of something before it.”

Perception, Expectation and Consequences

Should you believe that Flaubert, author of “Madam Bovary” among many notable works, was nothing more than a third-rate French scribbler  you’ll believe that quoting him does me no credit. You won’t expect that anything I write can help you and you won’t do anything differently  as a result.

Perception fashions so much of what we do. And that’s true of what happens in the workplace as well as outside it.

We create expectations  based on our perceptions. As a result we seek favourable consequences to match our expectations. That may mean that possible unfavourable consequences are ignored if they fail to match perceptions and expectations.

Some Workplace Examples

“Sales and production never see eye to eye”. “HR people just want you to follow the rules”. “You’ll never do well in this company if you don’t have a college degree.” “Our customers are only interested in low prices.”

I’m sure that you’ve heard statements such as these many times. You may even support such views. You may even argue that your views are a result of valuable and genuine experience. If so, I have news for you. Views and opinions such as these have their foundations in perception.  And the perception may be absolutely right, absolutely wrong or somewhere in between.

Whatever the case, that perception will dictate your actions. To quote Edward de Bono again; “Studies have shown that 90% of error in thinking is due to error in perception. If you can change your perception, you can change your emotion and this can lead to new ideas.”

Source Of Conflict

Perceptions, plus the expectations and consequences they lead to, can be a source of major conflict. A manager perceives an employee to be “difficult”, “unco-operative” and “disruptive”. The employee perceives the manager to be “unhelpful”, “critical” and “unsupportive”. Conflict is almost inevitable  ever it the perceptions are quite inaccurate.

Sadly it’s all due to the power of perception. And that power may have no objective reality whatsoever. Not only that, but because the parties involved trust their perception more than reality and fact, they’re unwilling to change their point of view.

Over 40 years ago when I first became a Training Officer, my boss used to have a saying he used when working with front line supervisors in communication skills: “The opinions that people hold are facts to them.” Experience has taught me that he was correct. And what he said then, still applies today. Mark Twain put it another way. “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for certain that just ain’t so.”

Do Remember ….

Perception may shape employee opinion. But it shapes manager opinion too. We’re all human. As managers our expectations will be influenced by our perceptions too. And it doesn’t matter how objective and factual we claim that we’re trying to be.

Some Actions To Take

  • Accept employee perceptions as real. Don’t dismiss them as biased and unreliable. Winning the argument simply won’t help. If I genuinely believe that Le Bron James is a better basketball player that Michael Jordan and that Jordan was better than Magic Johnston and Larry Bird, all the stats on the planet are unlikely to change my mind.
  • Work to help employees to reassess their perceptions. Seek examples of events that they experienced that didn’t fit the perception. For example if an employee feels that colleagues don’t acknowledge his or her skill adequately, ask for examples of when they were praised for their competence.
  • Perception, expectations, and consequences beliefs are real to the people who hold them. Avoid criticisms couched in sexist, racist or ageist terms such as “you’re only saying that because you’re a mother with teenage daughters.”
  • Assess on job performance only in demonstrable performance terms avoid comments like “you’re doing really well but you’re often late back from lunch”. Say instead, “You’ve met all your targets and performance standards by at least 15%. Just be careful that your colleagues realize that and don’t stretch your credibility by being late for meetings after lunch.”
  • Don’t allow employees to justify their perceptions as fact. The moment someone says, “I know for a fact that …” my suspicions are aroused about perceptions being misrepresented as fact. Another indicator is the employee who says, “I’m not surprised, those people in dispatch can’t be convinced that some clients are more important than others. They never treat any delivery as urgent.”
  • Form project groups to solve problems using employees from different areas. When employees from different areas have to work together to solve a common problem, they learn that they need to modify their perceptions to reach a satisfactory cause of action.

Conclusion

I think that de Bono and Flaubert are right. I’ve seen almost innumerable examples of perception interfering with clear thinking and sound judgement

With its associates, “expectations” and “consequences”, perception has a great influence of employee performance. Managers need to acknowledge this. It provides firm reasons for a strong performance centred management approach.

What To Do Now

Learn to recognize the influence of perception in employee performance. Learn to recognize how it affects your managerial performance too. Curtail the influence of perception whenever you can. And alert staff to do the same.

Check the links in the article for more information. Please leave a comment below. And please contact me direct at leonn@ozemail.com.au  if you have a particular issue you want help with.

 

 

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