Close the gap between how you intend to lead and how others see you
There is often a 'perception gap' between how we intend to lead, and how we are perceived by others. Closing this gap is critical...but how?
I’ve been involved in a big leadership development project recently for a firm who were looking to improve their leadership culture. They’re already very successful and have a very positive, person-focused culture in general, but of course every firm can always aspire to better. Part of the process was a 360˚ leadership survey in which a handful of people gave feedback on the leadership strengths and weaknesses of the individuals.
It was highly illuminating, revealing a perception gap, between how leaders intended to be seen to lead, and how their team members were perceiving them as leaders. For example, one delegate wasn’t surprised that they had feedback that they showed their frustrations quite publicly. But what they were surprised about was the way that it made newer team members feel quite anxious. They felt that everyone just knew who they were and took it for granted that, on occasion, they’d let a bit of steam come out of their ears. A massive gap in perceptions existed between how the leader thought others saw his behavior (noisy but harmless) and how the juniors saw it (terrifying and undermining).
There’s absolutely nothing unusual about this – and whilst that person might need a bit of encouragement to change the fundamental behaviour – what has been common in my work for a long time is a recognition that these sorts of leadership perception gaps are really common, and quite damaging to/for teams.
A perception gap is where someone’s intentions are different to the other’s perceptions. The term’s used more heavily when describing a gap between what a company intends and a customer perceives. But it works just as well when we think about the gap between the intention of the leader and the perception of the follower. Surprisingly, there’s very little written about this. Eales-White (2004) is a rare exception, and one that does a good job of helping us to understand what causes it, and what might be done about it. paraphrasing his research shows us 5 major reasons why perception gaps happen, and what can be done about them:
-The leader’s stress levels: Being anxious, busy or emotional may be interfering with the leader’s abilities to act as they are intending to. It might also stop them from perceiving the impact of how they are acting.
-The leader’s ‘chimp brain’: Their rational brain is perhaps being undermined by their chimp brain. For example, perhaps their conscious attempts to delegate are being undermined by their natural tendency towards perfection.
-Poor communication: They might be failing to say what they are intending loudly/clearly/out loud/often enough. They might be working in a space that is too noisy, or in a way that is too rushed.
-Bad listening skills: The follower could be a bad listener/observer.
-Mindset: The follower may be unable to hear your intentions because they are fixed on what they think you are saying or doing.
Once you can see which of the above are causing the perception gaps, you are a long way to solving them. Typical solutions that the delegates came up with were helping the follower to understand what makes you tick; recognising that stress can reduce your ability to communicate and mean that you need to be much clearer in your intentions; and important messages need communicating multiple times across multiple media (email, face-to-face, newsletter, meeting, individually, etc.) More specifically:
-If it’s your stress levels, you should try to recognise if/when your stress levels are likely to be high; try to communicate that to your team members, and look at ways to reduce your stress in the short, medium and long term. If you are in a period of high stress, look at ways to communicate this to your team. For example, tell them, ‘I’m not trying to come across as brusque; I’m just really busy today, I’m struggling to slow down.’
-If you feel that your chimp brain is undermining what is best for the team, challenge yourself as to whether the way that you think things need to happen is the only right way or if there are other alternatives.
-If you think that you’re communicating poorly and it’s leading to a perception gap, then you can try to improve the way/s that you are communicating: slow down, get out of noisy or crowded spaces, and communicate multiple times across multiple channels.
-If you think that bad listening skills on the part of the other are to blame, check with the listener that they are really listening, and ask them to repeat back what you’ve said, to take notes, or to state what their assumptions or take-aways are.
-And if you think it’s the mindset of the other that are leading to their misperception of you, help them to see who you really are by sharing more readily what makes you tick. This strays into the territory of Authentic Leadership (which says that we should all find out who we really are and channel that into the way that we lead). So, in keeping with that approach, we just thought about key things that others might need to know about you, such as whether you thrive on chaos or order; how you cope with stress; and how someone can tell if you’re busy.
Overall, addressing perception gaps can be critical work, in individual and team coaching in order that you can help your team, boss, and other people you work with to see you as you would like to be seen.
If you’d like to hear more about this piece of work and/or think about how it might apply to your setting, please get in touch.