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Relationship Management: Focus on Perception

I just participated in 5-day intensive learning experience hosted by the University of British Columbia on the theme of community engagement. I had a good sense of what to expect of the experience going into it, but am walking away thinking about the importance of relationship. Our cohort was exposed to people representing the First Nations, past Vancouver City Manager, Director of the Vancouver Public Library, Executive Director of the Vancouver YMCA, University faculty, administrators and staff, and even John Furlong, the chair of the 2010 Olympics and Paraolympics Planning Team. Across these meetings the one thing they all talked about, and emphasized as important, is the ability to build and nurture relationships.
I’m going to take a stab on describing some of the characteristics of relationships that can be applied universally, and simply. I’m aiming for talking points that are easily conveyed yet capture the rich array of nuances that govern the success or failure of so many relationships. After much consideration, I think the core elements of relationships include, not exclusively, the following: perception, power and politics. In this post, I’m going to focus on perception. Subsequent blog posts will address power and politics as they relate to relationships.

Perception

Identity—for a person or an organization—is a combination of who I believe I am and who I am believed to be by others. The latter is often referred to as “reputation,” “image” or “brand.” In casual conversation on this topic, many people I’ve spoken with believe that their identity is purely, or at least largely, self-informed. It’s a compilation of nature and nurture and the wide range of experiences one has had to date. I believe that’s part of the equation, but the power of others’ perceptions of me cannot be understated. For example, I have worked with many executives who describe themselves altogether differently than do their direct reports, or—with often more pronounced differences—people several levels below them on the organizational chart. As a consultant, I am often called into organizations specifically to deal with this gap in perception; or more importantly, the repercussions for the organization because this gap exists. The Center for Creative Leadership assessed executives’ self-perception and those held by others. They found a 1: .321 correlation between how executives view themselves/their behavior and how others view them/their behavior. This means that 66 percent of the time executives are wrong about how they are being perceived by others!
What are the consequences of not having an accurate understanding of how I am perceived? For starters, the existence of a gap of this significance is a clear signal that I am not receiving honest feedback. It’s not unusual for executives to lack feedback. They are often in peerless situations where the imbalance of power makes it difficult for people to share honest, sometime critical, information about behaviors for fear of retribution. Even executives who invite feedback or have little or no history of retribution against employees suffer from engrained organizational norms related to communicating with one’s boss.
Another consequence of not having ongoing feedback is that I become susceptible to over-use of those behaviors that lead to my current level of success. At face value, repeating the behaviors that have lead to my current level of success seems like an obviously sound strategy. However, it does not take into account the conditions under which those behaviors worked well and acknowledge that those conditions have likely changed over time. I see examples of this most often in people moving from manager to administrator level or from administrator to chief executive level. The behaviors of a top-performing manager—attention to detail, deep technical knowledge, operational focus—are not the same as those of a top-performing administrator—strategic focus, broad knowledge base, ability to make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of environmental data.

Feedback

The most important thing I can say about feedback is this: embrace it. If the old adage “perception is reality” is correct, it’s worth the personal effort to seek feedback regularly and act on it. Small course corrections in behavior keep the perception gap small and manageable—decreasing the probability of being blind-sided. Having said that, keep the following in mind:
1. If you don’t want it and won’t be influenced by it, don’t ask for it.

Feedback is most effectively given and received if both parties understand the motivation behind the request and believe that information is being shared in the best interest of the soliciting party. As the recipient, I must believe that honest feedback is going to give me helpful insight that I would not otherwise have access to and that will help me make useful behavioral changes. If I am not willing to change my behavior, I should not ask for feedback about its effectiveness. Inviting feedback creates an expectation on the part of the person giving the feedback. If that expectation isn’t met, she/he will likely not be willing to honor future requests of the solicitor.
2. Focus the invitation.

It’s difficult to know where to begin when asking for feedback. “Do you have anything you’d like to share with me as your boss?” “Are there things I’m doing about which you’d like to give me feedback?” These are not quite specific enough questions. Though they are open-ended and invite comment on any number of behaviors, it’s more helpful to focus the inquiry. It’s also helpful to remember that it’s difficult for people to give feedback about me. Particularly if a solid and positive relationship exists, people are hesitant to share criticisms about what may be perceived as one’s personality or character. Instead, focus on behaviors and/or a situation, bound in a focused period of time. “I’d like to hear your thoughts about what went well at today’s Cabinet meeting and what might be done to encourage higher levels of contribution from everyone.” “It seems to me that we’re having some difficulty seeing eye-to-eye on how to proceed with the next phase of our plan. I think we share a vision of our end-state but would like to get your input about we might approach this initiative differently, to get us on the same page.”

Tips for Gaining Personal Insight

A few suggestions for getting more insight about yourself in relationship with others:
1. Get a professional/leadership/executive coach

Select a coach that matches where you are professionally and with whom you can communicate well. Make sure that the coach understands your needs. Do you need problem-solving support for issues like managing employees’ performance? Or supporting your work-life integration needs? Do you need someone to facilitate the exploration of your next step and long-term career options? Or are you looking for someone to help you map your transition into an executive position? In any of these cases, an outside party whose job it is to help you think methodically through options and support you in the decision making process is an incredibly helpful resource. Note: For those transitioning into executive positions, check out the book The 90-Day Transition, HBR, 2010.
2. Ongoing formal and informal assessment
Reflective practice is not an option for people who are truly committed to self-betterment. 360 degree assessments are becomingly increasingly common for executive leaders’ performance assessment. That said, I strongly discourage one’s first exposure to a 360 degree assessment process come through a performance review process. 360 degree assessments are most helpful as developmental tools, so seek out an opportunity to get this sort of feedback when you can use the input to guide your future behaviors. This means that you are taking control of your perception, and have time to make needed adjustments that will benefit you if/when a 360 degree assessment is expected as part of a performance evaluation.

Manage the Perception, Facilitate the Relationship

Who am I relative to the other party(ies)? Am I the Protagonist? Hero? Victim? Mary Catherine Bateson, a cultural anthropologist, encourages the creation one’s personal narrative. Think about the power of this act. I decide the story line. I position myself in the role that is most desirable for me and others. Writing the story also forces me to explore the needs and motivations of others; to develop the characters. This desire to understand what motivates others is key to fully fleshing out my character’s role and behaviors in enacting the story. It is also the essence of leadership—putting myself in a position to serve the needs of others is one of the most effective ways of positioning myself to be seen as a credible leader; a leader worthy of being followed.

A Final Word, on Trust

Credibility is one of the most important qualities that people describe wanting in a leader. Credibility is established through demonstrating your willingness to work hard, maintaining composure even during difficult situations, using logic and values to drive decision making, and all the other qualities one would suspect. But this week, every amazing and effective leader with whom I interacted, all talked more about caring about people than anything else. And more than that, they oozed caring. They were genuinely interested in the lives and well-being of those around them.
Trust grows out of credibility. Once we have established enough of a relationship for you to see me as a credible person, you have a mental model of me that is your touchstone. It allows you to give me the benefit of the doubt when you see me behave in a way that seems out of character rather than judge quickly or harshly. I am going to end this post by encouraging you, the reader, to think about what you do, on a daily basis, that helps others to trust you—your intentions, your past and future choices. I use the word “do” in the previous sentence because like credibility, trust should be rooted in behavior, not just intentions. Again, what do you do to instill a sense of trust in you as a leader? What can you do more to help build and nurture trust? What can you do to repair trust that’s been lost? Do it.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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