by: Michael Keller
Leaders lead and followers follow, right? What if, as a leader, you believed you were leading but no one was following? What if your employees believed they were being led but in reality there was no leadership? We like to believe we are effective and efficient leaders using our perception of what an effective and efficient leader is as a benchmark. Our supposed followers may have a very different perception. It does not matter whose perception is right or whose perception is wrong — what does matter is that what we perceive, we believe. After all, perception is the truth. Webster defines perception as:
“1a: a result of perceiving: OBSERVATION, b: a mental image: CONCEPT, 2 obs: CONSCIOUSNESS, 3a: awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation (color ~), b: physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience, 4a: quick, acute, and intuitive cognition: APPRECIATION, b: a capacity for comprehension, syn see
In the scientific community Berelson and Steiner, in their book Human Behavior, define perception as, “…the complex process by which people select and organize sensory stimulation into a meaningful and rational picture of the world.” In the arena of leadership I would define perception as the acute awareness of the effectiveness a leader has in an organization based on an introspective assessment and accurate internal as well as external feedback.
This author had the honor of attending the FBI National Academy (176th session, almost froze to death) and the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas. During both of these arduous academic endeavors I was inundated with management principles and theory by some of the foremost leaders in both the law enforcement profession and corporate America. During my subsequent research I came to the conclusion that most everyone agrees that there are three primary skills that a good leader must possess: 1. vision, 2. interpersonal skills, and 3. technical skills. No one ever mentioned perception. I argue that to survive as an effective leader this skill is every bit as important as the other three.
The fact that people can perceive the same thing differently needs to become an integral part of the decision making process of all leaders (Robbins, De Cenzo). The process by which leaders can use the skill of perception effectively has several overlapping steps.
“We react to a specific object based on what we see rather than on what it really is. Often we see only what we want to in a given situation. Similarly, how we react depends on what we hear, not necessarily on what was really said.” (Whiseenand)
Several years ago I learned that perception was a powerful force to be reckoned with. I heard rumors about me that disturbed me because they were not true. When the opportunity arose, and the guts, I asked others how I was thought of in the organization.
I had heard rumors that I was thought of as the “fair haired boy” should have been no hair as I am follicly impaired. I also heard that I thought I was better than others, that I was a hard ass, black and white, aloof, a guy that could get things done. Some of these perceptions troubled me deeply and the best defense being a strong offense I set out to gather whatever information and data might be available to make an accurate assessment and appropriate changes.
I realized that to be an effective leader I had to know what the employees honestly thought of me. To accomplish this I made appointments to speak with employees that I knew well and others I barely knew. There were only two rules, be honest and be respectful. I approached this not as an opportunity to take a shot at me but as an opportunity to help me learn to be a better leader. If you give your employees an opportunity to take a shot at you, face to face, you will find that they will be less than frank for fear of reprisal. In a constructive criticism atmosphere they can be brutally honest. If you do this with the true intent of learning, you will undoubtedly get your feelings hurt. As people described their perception of me it sometimes made me very uncomfortable because I knew in my heart that they were wrong in their perception. It was at this point that I learned that what an employee perceives, they believe, regardless of what the truth is.
“The probability of developing such knowledge of ourselves and other people is enhanced if the police supervisor: (1) becomes continuously aware of the intricacies of the perceptual process; (2) avoids arbitrary and categorical judgments; (3) seeks reliable information before judgments are made; (4) shifts position as additional information is acquired; and, most crucial, (5) recognizes that we all see things differently because our needs greatly determine the view we have of ourselves and the world. To ignore the importance of the perceptual process is to ignore a major determinate of behaviors.” (Whiseenand)
Having become, (1) aware of the need to recognize and acknowledge the perceptions of employees and (2) gathered data through interviews, it was time to extrapolate from the data the relevant facts, (3) be objective, (4) review the facts for accuracy, and (5) make an assessment on how to change perceptions. Assessing the necessity for change requires a very introspective look at ourselves while attempting to be objective. This is not always easy or comfortable. Taking a systematic approach to perception and the resulting appropriate changes, if any, fosters an objective approach to various issues. This approach also helps put issues into a perspective that is not overwrought with emotion. This sounds likes a very simple methodical system but the reality is that when you introduce your personality and the personalities of your employees the frustration levels will soar, your communications skills and your patience will be tested.
Communication is the single most important tool a leader has at his/her disposal. Much has been written about communications and it is not my intention to regurgitate what others have said except to speak about communication and perception. You may have the best of intentions, genuine concern for the welfare of your employees, but if you do not communicate this in a fashion that your employees can understand then the perception of the employees may be just the opposite. Effective, accurate communication touches all aspects of leadership. The leader, sensitive to the perceptions of the employees, must use communication as a tool to either reinforce a positive perception or change a negative one.
To accomplish the changing of a negative perception through communication a leader must be very (1) proactive. The saying that “the best defense is a strong offense” is very appropriate here. When communicating with employees administrators must remember to (2) listen to what is being said, (3) be timely in responses, and, (4) provide accurate information.
Listening is a fundamental aspect of effective communication. How can we solve a problem when we have not listened to what the problem is perceived to be? How can we discern the difference between a symptom and problem when we have not listened to the facts? How can we help when we do not hear? “Listening on the job is not only frequent, it is important as well. When 282 members of the Academy of Certified Administrative Managers were asked to list the skills most crucial for managerial ability, “active listening” was rated number one and was placed in the “supercritical” category”. (Adler) Listening to what employees have to say sends a message that you care about their input; they have value.
I don’t know how many times I have listened to my spouse while watching television and retained nothing from the exchange except the score. Interactive listening is an integral part of effective listening. Listening can be mentally exhaustive. When an employee comes into your office to speak with you about some problem, come down from the “Ivory Tower”, grab a note pad, sit across from them and listen, take notes if necessary. This might come as a surprise to some administrators but frequently employees have very good ideas.
Communication with an employee should be done in a timely fashion. If an issue exists that requires input don’t wait so long that the information you disseminate is ineffective. Finding the right moment to interject an idea or address an issue is always a consideration. How many times have employees asked one another “what kind of mood is the boss in today?” They are assessing whether the timing is right to engage the boss in conversation or just leave him/her alone.
When communicating with your employees be sure that the information given is accurate. Inaccurate information will lead to confusion, frustration and impact productivity. Remember, if you’re the leader of the organization, what you say is very often perceived as gospel. Some of the communication we have with our employees is just friendly, idle chitchat that, although seemingly insignificant, can send some very profound messages. How many times have you heard your employees say “well, I thought you meant”? Your employees perception of what you meant was different that what you communicated. If you’re lying to your employees, stop. Once you’re caught in a lie, the perception will be that everything you say is probably a lie. The damage is irreversible in most instances.
Consistency in communication with employees compliments accuracy. Employees want to be treated fairly and we should strive to be consistent in our application of fairness and interaction with employees. Failure to be consistent in how we communicate will send mixed and confused messages to the employees. We should not communicate displeasure to one employee and fail to communicate the same displeasure to another employee for the same issue. It’s very important to remember that employees talk among themselves and frequently compare notes.
The use of E-mail, although efficient, is not always effective and should be avoided when the situation requires face to face communication. Sometimes what we say is not nearly as effective as how we say it. The impact of what we say through the verbal, written and electronic mediums pales in comparison to the perception of our communication through our body language and inflections.
Maintaining a chain of command is critical in this life and death profession we call policing. For the effective leader though, an open door policy can be very beneficial. Your employees should understand the importance of the chain of command and they should never have the perception that their leader is unapproachable. While trying to maintain a chain of command many leaders advocate having an open door policy. On occasion, an employee may be moved to take advantage of your open door policy and engage you in conversation that is to be kept in confidence. When you agree to talk with an employee “in confidence”, you are giving your word that you will not divulge the information. Failure to keep your word will result in the perception that you cannot be trusted. We must also remember that our employees talk amongst themselves and that the grapevine is a very powerful entity. The topic of conversation frequently is our leadership abilities and although employees don’t usually do in-depth analysis, they have significant opinions that they pass among each other. If you fail to keep your word with an employee, in all probability other employees will know within a short period of time resulting in a severe blow to the perception of your credibility.
In summary, we as administrators, in hopes of accurately assessing the perceptions of our employees, must open our eyes and ears. There are too many administrators who think that because problems are not knocking down their door that everything is great. When a confidence vote is called for, an association formed, or morale plummets, then these same administrators react with anger and hostility, usually at the wrong people, for issues they, the administrators, should have had knowledge of.
Perception is just another tool, under utilized, that requires an administrator to develop the true desire to be the best he/she can be. Using all of the tools available to us we can achieve great things with our employees for our citizens. We owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves. We took an oath!
R. Adler, “Communications At Work”, Principles And Practices For Business and Professions, McGraw Hill 1992, p.93
S. Robbins, D. DeCenzo, “Fundamentals of Management” Essential Concepts and Applications, Prentice-Hall 1995, p.236
P. Whisenand, “Police Supervision”, Theory and Practice, Prentice-Hall 1971, p.30