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Home > Audio, Podcast > Archive: Perception – August 12, 2005

Archive: Perception – August 12, 2005

September 10th, 2008

(This podcast is pulled “from the archives” and presented here as a service to more recent listeners — Douglas)

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In a high-tech career, it is sometimes the perception of your work that matters more than the quality of your work. As disturbing as it might be, you can often be perceived as aloof, arrogant or incompetent, even when the facts don’t bear out that conclusion. Human beings are complicated and confusing animals so discovering what is coloring their perception of you and your work can be a daunting task. Still, unless you want to find a new job, you are well-advised to address any issues regarding how you are perceived in your company. Remember though, that perceptions that people voice often have no relation to what is actually bothering them.

An example

A fellow podcaster, Joseph (not his real name) and I were chatting the other day and he related a story that perfectly illustrates the capricious nature of perception in the workplace. His manager called him in one day to inform him that some other departments, or perhaps just one, had complained that he and his staff were not being responsive enough to this department’s needs. Unfortunately, the specifics of the complaint were sketchy, as is often the case. It caught Joseph quite off-guard as there had been recent incidents within this department where his response to problems had been immediate, dropping other tasks to solve their problems. He was a bit confused and concerned about the complaints and wondered what might be the source.

As we talked, he described his office environment. It was the typical arrangement of cubicles, where all workers sat with their back to the doorway, so that their computer screen was exposed to managers and supervisors passing by. Additionally, as is often the case, many workers wore headphones to listen to radios or music without disturbing those around them.

Harkening back to my own days in the cube farm, I remembered a peculiar problem that resulted from arrangements like this. I also had an idea about how it might be creating Joseph’s complaints. With your back to the doorway, anyone who entered your cube to speak with you would usually startle you. Almost everyone would immediately apologize for disturbing you. When you add headphones, you are setting up a very bad situation.

I believe though Joseph and his staff felt they were being polite to keep their noises from bleeding into neighboring cubicles, they may have been, unintentionally, telling people “don’t bother me!” When co-workers and people seeking help approach from behind, they must cross over the public/private “wall” that is created by a turned back and headphones. This makes people feel awkward, intrusive and uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of anger.

That’s not what I meant

As you can see though, the complaints about being unresponsive might have nothing to do with the actual quality of service being provided. Sure, if you or your people are truly unresponsive then you need to recognize this fact and fix it. In most cases, though, it is a matter of how you are being perceived. Perceptions can quickly negate quality work. They can outweigh even the most studious attempts to provide great service. It is your job to find out what other factors might be involved in a complaint. Is there really a concrete problem with your operations or a matter of how you are being perceived? Is the perception a true indication of the problem or a result of some other, unvoiced issue? It can take a bit of discussion to come to the true nature of a perception issue. The people placing a complaint might not be able to tell you exactly what is bothering them. They might blame it on any number of issues, but unless you address the correct problem, the complaints will only recur. Your best solution is to talk to people. Help them find the words for what they are feeling and find a way through their perceptions and onto whatever issues might exist.

No matter the quality of your work, if it is perceived badly your job, and possibly your career, are in danger. Don’t slough off perception problems saying, “oh, they don’t know what they are talking about.” If your client is confusing perception with reality, it is you who will suffer. When perception problems arise it will take a combination of hard facts and thoughtful discussion to protect your high-tech career.

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