Perception is truth

Those who know me well will have no doubt heard me mutter the phrase “Perception is truth”. Perception is such a powerful force behind not just behaviour in our workplace but also throughout the world. Our different perceptions of truth are behind many of the problems and conflicts we see in our communities today. The problem is, your perception is your truth, but my perception is my truth and the two views may be very different. Most of us would stand up and fight for what we perceive as right, but what happens if that perception is wrong, and who determines which view is right? It is such an important factor of human behaviour to understand because we act on our perceptions of reality, not reality itself. Get your head around this and it is not hard to see how wars start.

Our perceptions are shaped by many factors such as upbringing, values, religious beliefs, attitudes, culture, peer pressure, past experiences and environment. It is the process by which we collect, filter and make sense of the sensory impressions of our environment and can be distorted and interpreted in alignment with our individual frames of reference and distinctive view of our world. From a managers perspective it is important to understand that employees will approach work problems in accordance with their professional function, background and training. As an example, if a General Manager met with the financial manager, marketing manager and human resources manager to discuss poor company performance, the answers provided would be predictable. The financial manager would blame financial issues such as poor cashflow control, the marketing manager would see marketing as central to organisational performance while the HR manager would put poor performance down to people issues. It is critical for good managers to be aware of assumptions and frames of references which can have a strong influence over individual perceptions and behaviour.

So can we believe our eyes? We tend to believe that we have no influence on what we see, that is, what we are seeing is objective, real and independent of ourselves. This is not correct as perception is both selective and inferential. Interestingly, perceptions can also be influenced by expectations and things which we are unaware of. As an example, if it is your birthday and you have still not received a birthday call from your best friend. You start thinking the worst of your best friend. They are disrespectful, they don’t value the friendship like you do. You are already thinking about the letter you are going to write telling them how you feel. You arrive home after work, fuming and hurt until you open the door and there is your friend leading a group of well wishes into singing happy birthday to kick off your surprise party. Our perception can fill in the gaps when we don’t know all the facts which can also have a great influence on how we behave.

Considerable skill is required to appropriately observe, understand and manage others. To acknowledge other possible realities we must overcome our own attitudes, perceptions and biases. Our perception of other people’s behaviour can also be influenced by our attitude towards them. This can be seen in a cultural context such as not trusting a particular race due to formed perceptions, or bias formed by physical characteristics such as “overweight” people are lazy. You can see how dangerous perceptions can be and how they are a key driver in conflict and misunderstanding. Another problem which further distorts our perceptions is that we tend to take perceptual shortcuts to help filter and interpret the huge amount of sensory stimulation we receive everyday. Some of the most common perceptual shortcuts are as follows;

  • Hindsight bias – When you are reluctant to admit your surprise to the outcome of decisions or events. You always try to explain that you expected the result.
  • Halo effect – You take one characteristic of a person and come to conclusions on what this means for the person as a whole. As an example, you form the perception that good-looking people are more intelligent, friendly or trustworthy.
  • Confirmation bias – You see what you expect to see. You see information that is consistent with your own views and disregard conflicting evidence.
  • Illusion control – When you are fully involved in some activity you feel more in control of the activity. You tend to attribute the success of the activity to your skill and efforts while failure is put down to chance.
  • Order effect – You perceive the first and last piece of information you receive as more important. overemphasizing the first piece of information is referred to as the primacy effect. An example is when interviewing candidates for a job and the first candidate sets the standard to which the others are compared. Focusing on the last information is referred to as the recency effect. An example is when a coach judges a players whole season based on poor performance in the last game.
  • Stereotyping – You judge people based on your perceptions of the group to which they belong. This can be based on race, sex, religion, education level, suburb where they live, wealth etc.

Perception is truth but you must understand that it is your truth and may be distorted by your own biases and perceptual shortcuts. There is merit in the old saying of to “walk in someone elses shoes” because only then will you gain a better understanding of their behaviour and motivation as well as your own.

Tony Grima


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