Managing Perceptions as a Leader (Pt. 2)

Yesterday, I began a three-part post on how to manage perceptions as a leader. I've been amazed on occasion at how people (even those I've known and loved for a long time) perceive me and my actions, as well as those of other people, and so have wanted for some time to learn more about how (and why) perceptions are formed, so that I might become a more effective leader by anticipating and shaping people's perceptions.

I've learned that, for whatever reason, I have long tended to view leadership and communication as a basically simple, linear process, I've learned--by experience and by research--that these things are far from simple or linear. The interplay between communication and perception involves multiple interactions, behaviors, and considerations that may not be immediately or easily apparent to a leader.

What is a leader to do, then? How can a leader—and a Christian leader, in particular—view and manage perceptions in such a way as to prevent confusion, conflict, and failure in an organization?

Communication between two individuals is never a simple and straightforward sharing of cognitive information; much less is communication in and to groups as simple as most leaders think. Research indicates multiple factors that contribute to create distance between what a leader or communicator intends and what a perceiver receives.

1. Over-reliance on Cognition. Manuel London, Ph.D., associate dean at the State University of New York’s College of Business (Stonybrook), helpfully identifies a long-standing over-reliance on cognition as an impediment:
[Recent] discoveries have moved the field away from thinking about person perception as rational, information-driven processes (referred to as "cold" cognition), toward considering the influence of motivational and affective processes or "hot" cognition (Zajonc, 1980). Indeed, it is now evident that prescribed models of social judgment (e.g., Cooper, 1981; Lord, 1985) are, at best, heuristics. But because researchers were guided by these models for so long, they assumed more cognitive-based explanations for the outcomes of person perception than warranted.
In other words, it is a mistake for a leader to expect listeners or followers to react with “cold” cognition to his or her communication, in whatever form. In fact, it may be more accurate to expect that the greater part of a person’s perception will stem from “hot cognition” (which will be defined shortly) and even non-cognitive sources.

2. Over-abundance of information. Donald E. Broadbent, the experimental psychologist and pioneer of cognitive psychology, showed in his book Perception and Communication that much difficulty arises from communicators presenting (consciously or unconsciously) multiple messages to listeners or readers simultaneously. He says:
1. Some central, rather than sensory, factors are involved when two messages are presented to the ears at the same time.
2. The effects vary with the number of possible messages that might have arrived and from which the actual ones are chosen (i.e., the rate at which information is arriving is important).
3. When some information must be discarded, it is not discarded at random. Thus if some of the material is irrelevant it is better for it to come from a different place from the relevant material, or to be louder or softer, or to have different frequency characteristics: or to be on the eye instead of the ear.
“What seems to be impossible,” he concludes, “on the basis of the considerable body of evidence we have examined, is to handle more than a critical amount of information in a given time.” Therefore, one could reasonably expect, if an attempt is made to share information in a disjointed or overlapping manner, that the listener or reader’s perception could well be at variance with the communicator’s intentions.

3. Sin patterns. Ken Sande, president and founder of Peacemaker Ministries ( posits the possibility that critical judgments of a speaker, writer, or leader’s communication may be attributable to the sin that infects all humanity (and, likewise, in the case of critical judgments on the part of the leader toward the hearers or readers). He writes:
When Adam sinned, he corrupted the entire human race. He passed on to each of us an inherent tendency to sin, which includes a natural inclination towards mistaken, negative judgments. This inclination is revealed throughout the Bible. The Old Testament offers many examples:
• After the Israelites conquered the promised land, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh returned to their allotted land and built an altar by the Jordan. When the other tribes heard about the altar, they assumed the worst and rashly assembled their troops to go to war against their brothers. Fortunately, before a battle began, those who had built the altar were able to explain its legitimate purpose and avoid bloodshed. (Joshua 22:10-34)
• In 1 Samuel, we read how the high priest made a hasty, critical judgment. When Eli saw Hannah praying in the temple, moving her lips but making no sound, he concluded that she was drunk. Only after harshly confronting her did he learn that she was communing with the Lord in a way that put Eli to shame. (1:12-17)
• Even King David made critical judgments. When he fled from his son Absalom, a man named Ziba brought David a critical report regarding Saul’s son, Mephibosheth, saying that he had turned against King David. Without waiting to hear Mephibosheth’s side of the story, David passed judgment against this innocent man and turned all of his property over to a false witness. (2 Sam. 16:1-4; 19:24-30)

The New Testament also portrays this pattern of making critical judgments.
• When Jesus was doing miracles and healing the blind, the Pharisees stubbornly closed their eyes to the good he was doing and interpreted his actions in the worst possible way, saying that he was actually serving the devil. (Matt. 12:22-24)
• In Acts 21:26-29, we see that Paul meticulously followed all of the Jewish customs as he prepared to come into the temple. Even so, the Jews assumed the worst, jumping to the conclusion that he had defiled the temple and should be stoned.
• As 1 Corinthians 10-11 reveals, the Apostle Paul repeatedly was condemned falsely, not only by the Jews, but also by people from within the Christian community. Like many church leaders today, he learned the hard lesson that servants of the Lord are often misunderstood, criticized, and judged by the very people they are trying to serve.

But we don’t need to look back thousands of years to see people making critical judgments of others. Just think how easily we ourselves believe the worst about others’ motives or actions.
• If someone delays answering a letter or fulfilling a commitment, we assume too easily that he is avoiding us or evading his responsibilities. Could it be that he’s been in the hospital recovering from a serious accident? Could he be overwhelmed by other responsibilities?
• If our children do not complete their chores on time, we conclude that they are being disobedient. Could it be that they are secretly wrapping a special present for their mom’s birthday? Could they have gotten distracted, and a simple reminder would help?
• If an employer fails to give us a raise, we assume she is unappreciative or greedy. Could she be struggling to keep the business going in the face of increasing competition and operating costs?
• If someone at church seems unfriendly, we assume she is proud or aloof. Could it be that she feels awkward and unsure of herself, and is hoping someone will reach out to her?
• If the elders do not accept a proposal we make, we may conclude that they are narrow-minded and do not understand or appreciate our opinions or needs. Could it be that God is leading them to give priority to a different ministry?
• If church members raise questions about policies or new programs, church leaders may conclude that the members are stubbornly unwilling to consider new ideas or stretch themselves to grow. They may even be labeled as rebellious troublemakers. Could it be that they have legitimate insights and concerns that deserve a careful hearing?
4. Bias and prejudice.The prevalence of bias and prejudice in the human heart and mind is also a potential source of inaccurate perceptions or interpretations. Hastorf and Cantril (1954) famously studied perceptions of a Princeton-Dartmouth football game; viewers at Princeton saw Dartmouth players commit more rule violations, and viewers at Dartmouth saw an abundance of penalties on the Princeton side. A person’s predilection toward certain loyalties, attitudes, beliefs, personalities, habits, etc., will affect his or her perception, often imperceptibly.

The Bible says, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Every human perception is subject to some bias or prejudice, both generally (about a certain race or class of people, for example) and specifically (about an individual or an organization). These biases and prejudices may have some basis in reality, but cannot be fully knowledgeable, as God’s judgment is.

5. Cultural differences. A team of Canadian and Japanese researchers have recently published studied how eastern and western cultures assess situations very differently:
Across two studies, participants viewed images, each of which consisted of one centre model and four background models in each image. The researchers manipulated the facial emotion (happy, angry, sad) in the centre or background models and asked the participants to determine the dominant emotion of the centre figure.
The majority of Japanese participants (72%) reported that their judgments of the centre person's emotions were influenced by the emotions of the background figures, while most North Americans (also 72%) reported they were not influenced by the background figures at all.
Dr. Stephen P. Robbins, a prolific and best-selling textbook author in the areas of management and organizational behavior, states it succinctly: “Culture…defines what’s acceptable to subordinates.” This extends beyond the cultural differences between east and west, or nationalities. It applies also to cultural differences between faith background, blue collar versus white collar, etc.

6. Personalities, power plays, perspectives, and purpose. Mike Anthony (quoted in Kenneth Gangel’s book, Team Leadership in Christian Ministry), identifies four causes of conflict in churches. Inasmuch as conflict often arises from poor communication, miscommunication, or misperception, these may also be useful as possible contributing causes to a gap between intentions and perceptions. Anthony writes:
In the eyes of most pastors and board members, there seem to be as many sources of church conflict as there are people in the congregation. The longer I am in the ministry, the more I discover! In speaking with pastors and board members over the years, I have identified a few causes of strife common in most churches: personalities, power plays, perspective, and purpose.
7. Motivation.Dr. Dan Burrell, professor at Liberty University and Boston Baptist College, defined motivation in the context of leadership:
Motivation is recognizing and utilizing the inner motives (drives or needs) of a person to get him to want to do what needs to be done. The leader should recognize that there is a cause (usually an identifiable one) for the way people think and act. People act the way they do because of a cause, and good leaders will seek to understand the cause-effect relationship behind the actions of people. The causes for actions will be based on a person’s value system, needs, and goals.
As I think about it, much of the miscommunication I have engaged in and contributed to may be attributable to a failure to adequately connect with the inner motives of the person or persons I was trying to lead. London’s work, cited above, goes into great detail on the subject of motivation as one example of “hot cognition”:
Given the pragmatic nature of person perception, the cognitive structures, processes, and strategies used by the motivated tactician are thought to depend on his or her motives in relationship to the situation. Two general motivational states relevant to social perception in applied contexts include those that deal with the costs of being indecisive (expectancy-oriented motives) and those that deal with the costs of being wrong (accuracy-oriented motives; see Fiske & Neuberg, 1990; Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Either of these stems from forces in the environment that motivate perceivers to seek to make accurate or "quick and dirty" decisions.
London goes on to identify motives that make salient the costs of being indecisive and motives that make salient the costs of being wrong. In the case of the former, he says, “In general, the costs of indecision increase whenever resources are limited. Here people will engage in more cursory, superficial processing in which "information search is curtailed, inconsistencies are ignored or seen as affirming, and snap judgments are justified" (Fiske, 1993, p. 175) and adds that “Basic research suggests that when the information processing environment reaches a certain level of difficulty, social perceivers are likely to rely on tools, such as stereotypes, in their "cognitive toolbox" (Gilbert & Hixon, 1991; Macrae et al., 1994).

8. Emotion. London cites Forgas (1991) and Kunda (1999) in stating that people’s perceptions will also be “heated up” by their emotions. A person’s perception may be a partial reflection of his or her mood at the time; people generally perceive things more positively when they are in a good mood and more negatively when they are in a bad mood.
London also identifies four “interpersonal and social factors” that may influence a person’s perception. He lists:
1. History of the relationship (e.g., between the communicator and the perceiver);
2. Similarity of target and perceiver (i.e., the degree to which the perceiver identifies and feels affinity with the target of the communication);
3. Status, power, and hierarchy (London suggests that “individuals of lower status or in a subordinate position will be more diligent in their information processing”);
4. Accountability (London states, “Being accountable to a third party, or having to justify a decision, also causes perceivers to process information more carefully”).
Obviously, multiple and varied factors may contribute to create distance between what a leader or communicator intends and what a perceiver receives. It should also be clear that no leader can reasonably expect to navigate the challenges and difficulties of managing the perceptions of others with one hundred percent effectiveness.

But I hope that an awareness of the contributing factors can at least help reduce misunderstanding and misperception between us and the people we lead. If not...well, never mind.

And, while I'm sorry this post has gone on so long, I think I can be a little more concise tomorrow, when I share eight ways I hope to do better at managing perceptions in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment