Perceptions Are What Count

Quick Summary: Other’s perceptions not company or management intentions determine morale.


In the fast-paced business decision making climate, actions can be taken or processes implemented that do not adequately consider potential negative interpretations.  Each of us views the world through our own eyes, based on our personal experiences and biases.  Taking time to consider how others might interpret planned actions can help to address potential negative perceptions before they occur and positively impact morale.

Unfortunately, other people’s perceptions, not the actual actions and intentions, quite often are all that count in forming opinions and impacting morale. Simple misunderstandings can quickly cause indelible impressions that will be hard to overcome.  The three statements listed below capture different aspects of this notion.

  • For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction (paraphrased statement of Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion).
  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions (paraphrased statement of a 10th Century French Abbot).
  • It is what others see and hear and not what you say that matters (used many times in this collection of articles).

All of us commonly fall into these traps and find ourselves in the awkward position of “correcting the record”.  Sometimes our recovery efforts are effective, but unfortunately, many times the “damage is done” as characterized by the statement: “It is hard to unscramble an egg”. 

A simple method that can be used to minimize the likelihood of this situation is to ask someone to take on the role of a Devil’s Advocate and develop scenarios that could materialize as a result of misunderstanding the statement, plan, activity, or situation.  Formalizing the request to ask someone to act as a Devil’s Advocate avoids the potential charge that someone is “being negative” or not being a “team player”.  The extra time, usually measured in minutes, to consider these alternative potential reactions is usually a small fraction of the time required later resolving the situation.

The following are three common examples that can be easily misinterpreted.

Human Resources reporting to the CFO.

This is a common arrangement in many organizations. It is very logical considering the interactions required regarding compensation, benefits, headcount increases/decreases, re-allocations of resources, or a host of other personnel/financial related issues.  However, by their nature, most finance personal are analytically oriented while human resources personnel have more amicable tendencies.  These differences are, in no way, meant to be judgmental.   However, to employees, it may appear that the company is being insensitive to their “soft” needs. With Human Resources reporting directly to the CEO, an entirely different message is delivered to the employees.  This is especially true when the CEO makes the claim that “Our employees are our most important asset”.

The Quality Organization reporting to Development

It is not uncommon for a quality group, often referred to as Software (or System) Quality Assurance, aka SQA, to report to the VP or Director of product development. To be effective, the quality organization must be independent and not be afraid to make tough calls about product defects and customer issues.  If they report to the product development leader, who may be measured by product release schedule adherence, they may feel unduly pressured into compromising their positions.  Even if they act with total objectivity, others, outside of the organization, may still assume compromises are made.

Another inappropriate message that may develop with the reporting relationship is that quality is only important for product development and not other company departments or activities.   As described above, if the Quality organization reported to the CEO or COO, an entirely different perception would most probably develop.

Relaxing Standards

The pressure to release a new product or upgrade to meet a certain previously established commitment can be used to justify a relaxation of quality standards or accepted processes.  The justification is often cloaked in the statement of “…for good business reasons, we have decided to…”.  The real message is that “quality counts, but not that much”.

The same “logic” is often used at the end of quarter or other reporting period regarding accepting orders with less than normally acceptable credit or other business terms, or shipping products that have bypassed outgoing inspections.  In these cases, the message to the organization is loud and clear – short-term financial performance trumps the business standards.

Artificially Meeting Period Ending Goals

The Relaxing Standards issue discussed above was focused on actions that impacted prospects and customers.  Perhaps a more serious issue involves employees and the pressure to complete tasks before a deadline.  Conducting employee reviews, holding marathon training courses, or other personnel related tasks that should have been completed during the normal course of business, but are shoe-horned into the end of the quarter or other reporting period sends a clear message:  The company doesn’t care about us; they only want to turn the crank to meet their numbers.

Faking the Numbers

There is no doubt that all companies, and most of us, “fake” some of the numbers, some of the time.  Our weight, our age, our high school athletic success, and a host of other “innocent” twisting of the facts is normal.  In business, creative marketing professionals know how to promote products as “best in class”, “without equal”, “the critics agree”, “nine out of ten” plus many other superiority statements; they fill the airwaves, Internet, and print media.  We have all grown to expect these statements.  However, some organizations “go over the line” and willfully deceive customers and even government officials with false statements.  Invariably, some employees know that that the deception is occurring.  It doesn’t take long for internal rumors to start and employees to realize that the company cannot be trusted.  A few “faked numbers” can easily be extrapolated to questioning anything and everything officially published by the company.

Conducting employee exit interviews.

Employee turnover is a fact of corporate life.  In fact, employees average staying with a company for a little over four years.  There can be many reasons for employee resignations or terminations. Many companies conduct employee exit interviews.  Many do not.  For those that do perform these exit interviews, only some small percentage are conducted by independent personnel (commonly Human Resources).  Unless these interviews are performed by independent personnel, the exiting employee’s colleagues can easily reach the conclusion that the company does not care about the candid opinions offered by the employee.

Clearly, the examples given above do not apply to all companies.  However, there are many other similar situations that can easily be misinterpreted.  Taking a few minutes to try to identify the unforeseen consequences that could occur can result in avoiding actual unintended consequences.  Work to align perceptions with reality.  Asking one question, “What could others think”, can go a long way to avoid this situation.


Article Number : 4.030206   

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