“Hearing ‘reflective back talk’ from friends, colleagues, spouses, and significant others allows us to “true” ourselves in relation to their perceptions. With this input we can integrate our internal conversations with data from the external world to enrich the process of knowing ourselves better.” — Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith, Learning to Lead
An elderly gentleman went to the doctor with a complaint about a gas problem. “But,” he told the doctor, “it really doesn’t bother me too much. When I pass gas they never smell and are always silent. As a matter of fact, I’ve passed gas at least 10 times since I’ve been here in your office. You didn’t know I was doing it because they don’t smell and are silent.”
“I see,” the doctor replied as he examined him. When he was finished, he wrote a prescription and handed it to his patient. “Take these pills three times a day and come back to see me next week,” he instructed.
The next week the gentleman was back. “Doctor,” he exclaimed, “I don’t know what medication you gave me, but now my gas… although still silent… stinks terribly!”
The doctor retorted, “Good! Now that we’ve cleared up your sinuses, let’s work on your hearing.”
An extremely useful step in our leadership development is seeing myself as others see me. So I need to understand their perceptions of my behavior. My effectiveness in leading, relating to, or working with others is highly dependent on their perceptions of me. I may not agree with what they see, but their perception is our reality. Those around me have an opinion of who they think the real me is. Their perceived “truth” becomes the way they treat me. Their perception forms their part of the reality of our relationship.
The discussion of perceptions is often a thorny one as we work with individuals, teams, and organizations to improve their effectiveness. For example, we tend to define levels of service or quality through our own eyes and values. That may not be the way our customers or partners define it. There is no objective definition. There is only the reality that I see, you see, he sees, or she sees. Our personal perception is our personal reality. There’s no accounting for taste. Everyone forms his or her own opinion no matter how wrong we may think it is. If we’re going to improve the service or quality delivered, we need to first understand how those we’re serving, or producing for, perceive service or quality.
Like beauty, service, quality, honesty, or integrity, leadership is in the eye of the beholder. I judge myself by my intentions. Others judge me by my actions. My intentions and the actions that others see may be miles apart. Unless I know that, I am unlikely to change my actions or try to get others to see me differently. I can become trapped in their reality and get very frustrated when they don’t respond to me as I’d like.
Getting feedback from others on our personal behavior is tough. It often hurts. The truth may set me free, but it will likely make me miserable first. When we get feedback, we nod our head to the positive and supportive statements that agree with our own views. However, when it comes to our weaknesses or improvement areas we take those to heart and sometimes dwell far too heavily on them. We can get ten rave reviews for work we’ve done and one critical comment. That one comment hurts. If we’re not careful, it can fester into doubts and a loss of confidence. As a result, the truth that may set us free of our less productive habits becomes the truth we prefer not to hear. That’s human nature. What stunts our personal growth and gets us stuck in a rut is when we refuse to hear any more of it. As a parent, boss, or appointed leader of some type, it’s too easy to hide behind our position and avoid feedback.
The wider the gap between our own perceptions of areas to improve and the feedback we’re getting, the more we may experience the “SARAH process.” This approach comes from grief counseling. The first letter of each stage spell “SARAH.” The stages are Shock, Anger, Resentment, Acceptance, and Help. When I get open and honest feedback on how others perceive me, I may be shocked, angry, and resentful. But unless I accept that as their perceptions of the real me (their reality of me), I’ll never progress to the final stage of self-help or seeking help from others in taking action on the feedback and making the changes called for.
Human nature seems to endow us with the ability to size up everybody but ourselves. As painful as it may be, feedback is a big contributor to our leadership development. Feedback is often a key element in personal learning and improvement. It helps us to size up and see ourselves as others see us. We may not agree with the perceptions of others, but unless we know how we’re perceived, we stand little chance of improving our relationships and effectiveness with them. Feedback also gives us another opportunity to reflect on our behavior from the view point of others. It provides outside perspectives on the exploration of our inner space.
Not all feedback is valid and helpful. Ultimately I have to decide what fits and what doesn’t. I have to choose the feedback that rings true to me. According to an ancient story, a man once approached Buddha and began to call him ugly names, Buddha listened quietly until the man ran out of insults and had to pause for breath. “If you offer something to a person and that person refuses it, to whom does it belong?” asked Buddha. “It belongs, I suppose, to the one who offered it,” the man said. Then Buddha said, “The abuse and vile names you offer me, I refuse to accept.” The man turned and walked away.