Leadership and the Battle of Perceptions

by Alli Polin on June 6, 2014

Leaders: What do you value? Is perception really reality?

Imagine that a really awesome houseguest comes for a visit.  They hang out with you and your family, help clear the table after dinner and sleep down the hall.  They love it at your house so much, they stay up late, day after day, choosing time with you instead of sleep or going home to be with their own family.  They’re really happy in your house and you like them too, for a houseguest.

One week, your houseguest says that they have an idea, they’ve decided to bake a dessert that no one has ever seen before.  They plan for days, gather all of the ingredients and go to great lengths to get special items that are not on hand at the local grocer.  Eventually, they go in the kitchen and get cooking.

You begin to wonder what they’re doing in there and what’s taking so long.  Joe makes dessert in five minutes, Christina, an hour.  Days of baking seems unnecessary, doesn’t it?  You begin to wonder, did you really want dessert anyway? Have they ever made this before?  Shouldn’t it be easier and faster?  You are ready to forget dessert altogether and then they emerge.

The cake is beautiful.

Despite that it’s clear your houseguest had never made a cake quite like this one before everyone loves it.  Even your extended family thinks it’s the most delicious cake they’ve eaten in a really, really long time.  They also can’t stop gushing about how wonderful you are to let your houseguest make such a treat.  You’re happy to accept all of the compliments.  After all, it is pretty great cake.

Still, you’re frustrated that it took triple the time and effort that you imagined.  You invited your houseguest to stay at your house because you thought that they’d swim in the pool, play Wii and babysit once in a while… not put in days and days to simply bake one cake.

Yeah, it tastes good but isn’t it time for you go home, Houseguest?

Are You a Leader Engaged in a Battle of Perceptions?

Some leaders treat their employees like the most unwelcome houseguest around.  Instead of making employees feel like an important part of the team, no matter how long they stay, they are forever a visitor who could be asked to leave at any time.  Yes, we all understand at-will employment, however, it’s tremendously difficult as an employee when you’re constantly worried about getting the boot.

In cultures where great work is overshadowed by assumptions about the complexity and time required, even stellar results can have less-than-welcoming receptions from leadership.  The gap between front-line challenges and the perspective of senior leadership widens when connection, support and engagement is replaced with pesudo-stabs at motivation, limited contact, and a lack of true understanding of the work effort.  Talk about a battle of perceptions, just like with our homeowners and houseguests, leaders begin to ask themselves questions and make up the answers.  Why did it take so long?  Why did they do it that way?  Were they lucky or do they really know what they’re doing?  Why can Joe do more in half the time?  At the same time, employees are looking back at you wondering why you’re not happy and more supportive.

Unfortunately, in many organizations, big-effort and big-impact contributions are minimized when the person down the hall is cranking out modifications to five projects and this employee-cum-houseguest is focusing on a single effort.  Pressure to prove immediate value is tough to manage when innovation is in the mix and is unlikely to yield immediate short-term results.  To create a world-class organization, leaders need to give their people the time and space to create meaningful solutions instead of only rewarding band-aids and patches.

When employees are faced with a “what have you done for me lately” every time they turn to take a breath, it’s hard to keep up the positive energy to bake the next “cake.”  I believe that people want to give their all and have personal success as a part of creating organizational success.  How can leaders and employees create a win-win instead of a win-lose culture?

5 Ways of Being to Eliminate the Battle of Perceptions and Create Shared Success:

Be Transparent:  Admit it, with your family you say what’s on your mind and not always elegantly.  Leaders that want to see specific improvements in performance need to be open and honest about it.  It’s confusing when you hear good job over and over only to find that you’re not meeting expectations at annual review time. Be a leader who helps people be in the know instead of constantly on edge and in the dark.

Be Inclusive:  Nobody likes to be treated like they’re a temp.  With a temp mentality, you’re only passing through with no intention of making your mark.  Invite contractors, consultants and full-time employees to all-hands and off-sites.  Make sure that people know that they’re welcome and you want them there.

Be Welcoming:  In our house, we have a guest room that’s ready to go in case someone wants to stay with us.  We put out towels, bottled water, and make sure they have what they need to be comfortable.  At work, leaders can do the same by making sure people have the log-ons and technology they need to do their job to the best of their ability.  Asking someone to scrape by most certainly does not make them feel welcome or accelerate success.

Be Accepting:  We don’t always like our houseguests at every moment, but we usually love them (we did invite them to stay!).  Leaders, your people are going to try new things and mess up.  Accept best effort and not only best results.  Accept that they’re stretching themselves and stretching the team to be better.  It’s your job to facilitate learning not simply judge people for trying and failing.  Love your employees enough to let them have success, failure and grow along the way.

Be Forthright: My Mom tells me what she thinks even when I don’t want her to.  I’ve learned that sometimes I just need to hear what she says and my attitude isn’t going to stop her from telling me.  Leaders: Tell people what they need to hear!  Don’t mask your message because you don’t want to be the bad guy.  Be the good guy who speaks the truth.

Clearly, this is not a complete solution to the problem of clashing assumptions and priorities but it’s a good place to start because it focuses on the relationship between the leader and the employee.  Leadership happens through relationships and the way to end the battle of perceptions once and for all is dialogue, not monologue.  Employee engagement will skyrocket when you trust, ask questions, listen and don’t assume that you know the full story.  Maybe someone will even bake you a cake to say thanks for creating such a great place to work.

What tips do you have for leaders that struggle with employee engagement?  How can they create a culture where people are welcome, want to stay and not simply passing through?

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

John Bennett June 6, 2014 at 8:10 am

Your headline: “5 Ways of Being to Eliminate the Battle of Perceptions and Create Shared Success” As an emeritus professor interested in effective, deeper learning at all stages of learning, throughout our lives, I look at your list from that perspective. In that regard, while all five are important, “Be Forthright” is probably most important – be clear in our expectations (and assess appropriately), ever careful to “Be Accepting” preferably with opportunities to redirect after frequent formative feedback.

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Alli Polin June 8, 2014 at 6:40 am

John,

I strongly agree that not enough leaders are forthright. Despite the fact that it was often uncomfortable for me, the leaders that cared enough to speak the truth to me probably helped change my career trajectory. It helped that expectations were clear and they could articulate when I was missing the mark and exceeding expectation and why.

A sincere thanks for adding your insight here, John!

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Joy Guthrie June 6, 2014 at 9:23 am

Great advice Alli. On “Be Welcoming” I’ve found that it’s easy for many of us to be welcoming when someone is new. Once that “newness” wears off (and that timeframe is different for different people), the welcoming atmosphere is likely to disappear. One of our customers hired many people at one time. After about 3 weeks, they removed the welcome mat. That left all the “new people” really confused. At some point, you cease to be a guest and become a resident. That really shouldn’t remove the idea of “welcome-ness” though. Great thought-filled post again!

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Alli Polin June 8, 2014 at 6:51 am

Interesting story, Joy. I worked for a company that welcomed new hires long before the first day and continued through the first six weeks and after that, we still had access to people as necessary but we had clearly crossed the welcome mat and through the door.

Thanks for sharing that example – abrupt change like that can be jarring and cause worry instead of inspire confidence… especially when you don’t know it’s coming.

Thanks, Joy!

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Tom Rhodes June 6, 2014 at 10:59 am

Really great post. Forthright may the most important, although all are key, and the most difficult. Leaders are in some ways the parent and need to have kind difficult conversations. They need to help others stay on the path. The path may have wide boundaries, yet there is still a path. Also we need to realize faster is not always better. Speed can kill.

Thanks for another great post.
Tom

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Alli Polin June 8, 2014 at 6:55 am

Difficult conversations should come with the territory, don’t you think. Or, better yet, courageous conversations. Too often they think the thoughts, draw conclusions and miss out on what it really takes to make an educated decision or raise the bar – talk to someone.

Thanks for adding to the conversation, Tom!

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Karin Hurt June 6, 2014 at 11:04 am

Beautiful. If I ever come to stay, don’t worry, there won’t be any baking involved.

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Alli Polin June 8, 2014 at 7:00 am

Good to know! I promise the same :)

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Jon Mertz June 6, 2014 at 11:44 am

Alli, In some ways, it is treating a person like you have just met them for the first time — interested, filled with questions, eager to learn more…. Appreciate your perspective here on how to keep “fresh” engagement with team members! Jon

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Alli Polin June 8, 2014 at 7:02 am

What a beautiful way to put it, Jon! Like you’ve met for the first time… a lot less knowing and a lot more curiosity.

Always appreciate your insights!

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Terri Klass June 6, 2014 at 7:56 pm

Putting out a welcome mat and making others feel comfortable is so important for leaders if they want their teams to perform collaboratively and at a high standard.

From what I have seen lately at organizations, being transparent and speaking with honesty is often overlooked. The result is a confused workplace where no one is really sure if they are doing the right thing. If leaders find that their teams are asking tons and tons of questions, clarity is missing and perhaps there is a lack of trust and transparency.

Another great post, Alli!

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Alli Polin June 8, 2014 at 7:20 am

Terri,

I’m seeing what you’re seeing too. People are doing what they think is right and missing the mark because they’re simply in the dark. In addition to asking tons of questions, no questions at all is also a sign. They are afraid to ask for clarification because they don’t want anyone to think they’re not on top of things.

It really does help when you feel welcome to take risks, ask questions and innovate without fear of punishment.

Terrific addition, Terri. I’m grateful.

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Carl June 7, 2014 at 4:36 am

Great post Alli – with your love of real-world examples, I kept waiting for you to say that the house guest story was true! [please say it isn’t so! :-) ]

Best regards,
Carl
@SparktheAction

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Alli Polin June 8, 2014 at 8:32 am

Happy to say this one’s all made up! (but inspired by real life situations in the office)

Thanks for your support, Carl!

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Ryan Biddulph June 7, 2014 at 7:15 am

Good tips Allie! Building a loving, caring office environment can help you get past this terrible managerial habit. Thanks!

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Alli Polin June 8, 2014 at 8:38 am

Many thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ryan! It really is a terrible managerial habit that can be broken when leaders make the commitment to change.

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Samantha Hall June 7, 2014 at 3:27 pm

Great post Alli.

The battle of perceptions is a tough one in many industries. One example immediately came to mind from the past in a healthcare setting I was working in for a short period of time. It was a 48 bed long term care facility. The number of residents (patients) and the level of acuity (how much care their particular health care needs required) determine how many nurses and caregivers needed to be staffed per shift.

For a long time, swingshift was only staffing one nurse for the entire shift along with some caregivers. And this is where the huge perception dilemma came in.

The people in management who were assessing acuity levels when admitting new residents (patients) were intentionally taking on HIGHER acuity patients because they bring in more money. So this meant we had a TON of insulin dependent diabetics, people who required PIC lines, tube feedings, etc. Above the normal for what our type of facility and staffing.

Instead of speaking up and saying anything, the nurses who had been working their for years, simply tried to keep up with the additional work in terms of extra treatments and loads of more medications during each med pass. I’m not exactly sure WHY people didn’t speak up.

By the time I was hired on, I’m not sure HOW long this was going on…that swing shift was only being staffed with ONE nurse to handle a med pass for a 48 bed facility including multiple diabetics that required glucoscans to check blood sugar levels and insulin, in addition to all of the pills and other meds prescribed.

Some of us newly hired nurses who began working the swing shift were noticing a ton of extra pills left in the bubble packs for some of the patients. Long story short, it didn’t take long to realize what was happening. The regular swing shift nurse was cutting corners in order to complete the med pass on time. Instead of speaking up and saying the extra patients with higher acuity levels (that required more time and care due to increased treatments and medications) required an additional nurse staffed on swingshift at least to cover the 1st half of the shifts med pass, she was trying to keep up all by herself. Couldn’t do it. So started skipping some of the medications for patients.

Once this was identified, it resulted in her termination. ALL of which could have been avoided if the regular nursing staff would have found the courage to speak up on behalf of their own licenses and the safety of the patients they are licensed to protect and provide quality care to.

After this incident happened, two nurses were scheduled to start each swingshift with one scheduled to leave after the evenings med pass.

People in adminstration and who fill the beds, do NOT have an accurate perception on how much time and attention each patient/resident needs unless they are the one’s physically spending time with that patient. Who has an accurate measure of this knowledge? The nursing staff. Not the people in the office pushing numbers and data around in their folders…..

Quality is more important in many cases then quality. Especially in healthcare.

Quality saves lives. Quantity is too prone to cut corners and skip important steps in order to ‘appear’ successful.

Thanks for sharing another great post!

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Alli Polin June 8, 2014 at 8:36 am

Thank you for sharing that story, Samantha! It’s exactly the kind of situation I had in mind when I wrote this.

Thank goodness that the nurse that was cutting corners with medication did not do any significant damage to their patients.

When people make decisions off of spreadsheets alone, it’s easy to miss what’s really going on in the situation. Whether it’s weighing the benefit of going deep on a single project or staffing levels, numbers don’t always tell the full story.

It’s my hope that quality will consistently win the battle against quantity because it’s rare that they are able to truly co-exist for very long. There are times when resources are limited and tough decisions need to be made, however, pretending that quantity consistently wins the day is just spin.

Big thanks to you for adding so much color to this discussion!

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