July 28, 2014

The Perils of Perception Driven Leadership

Perception driven leadership is a slippery slope. When leaders just rely on perceptions, they miss vast amounts of information. In some cases, perceptions will drive a leader down the wrong path with catastrophic results.

Perception is often misunderstood for reality because it’s much easier to take in what’s in front of you then to dig deeper into the facts. For a leader, perception then becomes reality. In fact, perceptions are usually the norm while reality almost never gets consulted.

Part of why perception is taken as reality is that we want our world view to match reality even when it doesn’t. This makes us feel comfortable that whatever direction we are heading is the right one. For obvious reasons, this is dangerous.

Perceptions Distort Reality

The reason why perceptions are dangerous is because they can be used to distort reality. This then makes the leader uninformed and easily manipulated. It’s also opens up your supporters to second guess your decisions and think you are out of touch, ignorant or just don’t care.

What’s interesting about perceptions is that most people know they are being tricked — their are just too involved in the reality distortion field to say anything. This is mostly due to group think, confirmation bias and the bubble that is around most leaders.

Why Perceptions Trump Reality

The main reason perceptions trump reality is that the leader rewards the reinforcement of their world view. This takes the form of discrediting dissent, distorting facts and promoting “yes men.” All of these things reinforce the perceptions wanted instead of reality.

Most of us do this because we have been trained to take short cuts. In reality, there is way too much information to process and that overwhelms us to the point where we saturate. This saturation is really uncomfortable and fills us with anxiety.

To combat these feelings of anxiety, we take short cuts. These short cuts rely on seeing patterns that we recognize and are comfortable with. Most of these patterns are the world we want to see — not necessarily reality. Thus, we reinforce our world view by seeking the patterns we want to see (e.g. Self-Serving Bias and the Misinformation Effect. Mix in a group of people who share a common need for the same reality (e.g. Groupthink) and you have a slippery slope of perceptions becoming reality — at least within the leadership bubble.

Perceptions Can Be Deadly

Probably the most tragic example of perception driven leadership was the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. This tragedy could have been avoided if NASA’s leadership had stepped out of their perception bubbles and performed a reality check.

According to Richard Feynman, who was part of the Rogers Commission that did the investigation, NASA management was driven by perceptions not reality. This quote sums it up best:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. — Richard Feynman in the Rogers Commission Report on the Challenger Disaster

This highlights an important aspect of perceptions — if you want something bad enough, you will believe it. NASA management wanted Challenger to launch and that led to the perception that it could be launched in cold weather with deadly results.

Moving Beyond Perceptions

It can be hard for a leader to move beyond perceptions because it’s take more brain power to seek out reality and the truth not to mention it could lead to unpopular decisions. That’s why it’s important that a leader make it a routine part of their leadership style to promote reality. That way, reality will always be present in and outside the leadership bubble.

Consider some of the most effective ways to really know what’s going on:

  • Make reality checks easy: It’s easy to get sucked into a position or situation if you let it get out of hand. Make it a part of your style to step back and ask people to confirm assumptions.

  • Reward dissent: Too often, leaders shoot the messenger. Instead, reward those who tell the truth and expose reality. This does not mean you encourage complaining, negativity or bitterness — just constructive dissent.

  • Gather independent information: There is nothing better than information that is obtained from impartial, 3rd party sources that confirms what you were told. Use it as much as you can.

  • Step outside the bubble: All leaders are inside a bubble. This bubble is created by supporters and the leader to protect the leader from reality. Step outside it. Go incognito so that you can see what’s really going on.

  • Consult outsiders: Akin to independent information but more formalized. Have outside firms or consultants at your disposal so that you can validate reality, facts and assumptions.

It Starts From The Top

Perception’s are largely driven from how top leadership wants reality presented. If a leader only wants to hear good news, shoots the messenger and does not encourage rational dialogue, then the perception will almost never equal reality.

As a leader, you need the full story — warts and all. Encourage your supporters to always give you what’s really going on and you will not only become a better leader but will encourage your supporters to value reality more than perceptions.