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Friday, September 23, 2011

Learning the skill of perception management

If you have understood the unfolding of cognitive talent, perception management is an 'Achilles heel' for many of the cognitive performers.

Perception is a subjective interpretation of observed facts. If I meet you in a office for 15 minutes, and you conclude after our meeting that " I am unprofessional', that is a perception. It is based on subjective interpretation of the 'facts that you observed in the 15 minutes'. It may be accurate or inaccurate. But many decisions are based on perceptions. Due to reasons, as we see below, perception is dominant in companies.

Why do we always use perception to evaluate others

But if you pause for a while, you will appreciate that even you also use perception to evaluate others most of the time.

When you go out to buy a soap, are you evaluating the soap based on its chemical and purifying attributes, or on subjective brand  features of the soap? When you choose X doctor in comparison to Y, do you compare their professional merit or do you choose on the basis of their clinic's get-up and doctor's manner of speech? When you evaluate your TV mechanic/automobile mechanic, do you evaluate them on their 'deep knowledge and merit' or on their 'dress and manner of speech'?

Why do we use perception more often than objective facts to decide? It is because of two reasons: either we do not have enough 'time' or enough 'ability' to evaluate. While buying soap we should evaluate the 'soaps chemical characteristics and its benefits' to us. But as we think that we will not gain enough 'value from the effort', we conclude  'time versus value' trade-off is not beneficial. Consequently, we do not spent the necessary time in evaluating soap !

When we are buying a high priced car though, we do spend much more time to collect more 'objective facts' on cars. But we hit another barrier : the barrier of specialisation. Even if the carmaker gives us all the objective information about car engine,gear and other parts, we do not have the 'cognitive ability' to evaluate, because that needs understanding of special domain called automobile engineering. Due to the same barrier of specialisation, we cannot evaluate the 'speciality of doctor's medicine' even when the doctor is saving our life.

Limited time at our disposal and the continuing 'super specialisation' in today's world ( which makes it impossible for us to evaluate these specialist fields)forces all of us to use 'perception' more than we like.Advertising industry not only understands our limitation, it exploits it fully. Although we can crib about it as much as we want, we cannot do anything about it because the root-cause is 'systemic'. 

Why is perception management critical in work-life

Our key evaluators - be it bosses, superbosses, colleagues and customers - almost always, evaluate us with 'subjective' interpretation of what they observe in us when we meet them for the first time. 

When researchers studied the impact of 'perception' in a 15 minute selection interview, they were surprised. They found that interviewers evaluate the interviewee in the first 3 minutes, and spend rest of time in 'confirming' the initial judgement made in 3 minutes. Perception, in other words, create virtuous cycle (depending on how you see it) that determine the final evaluation. In psychology, this is called as primacy bias, and despite the care taken to reduce it, it remains dominant !

Given the high degree of specialisation in a company, and given the 'time scarcity' of senior executives, perceptions are heavily used to evaluate employees in a company more than the objective facts. With bosses, with whom we have constant interaction, the role of perception may get reduced. However, with other key evaluators in an organisation, it is perception that matters. Whether you like it or not, you live in the imperfect world ! I know of several individuals in companies who survive in an organisation just on the basis of managing perception.

Four principles of Perception management

Perception management is done to ensure that your 'evaluator' will evaluate you 'positively' in the 'short initial interactions' until there is sufficient time for them to assess your  'merit'. 

If you help others to perceive you in positive manner, it will multiply your opportunities and open your access to important people in the organisation. Negative perceptions, on the other hand, means that you have lost the battle even before you have entered the battleground.  

To help others perceive you positively, follow these four generic principles:

1. Remember 'packaging' creates +ve perception, because it is difficult to understand and evaluate 'content inside the package'. Remember this rule all the time.

That is why body language, manner of walking, proper dress, personal grooming, use of branded accessories such as phones and belts create lasting impact than anything else. Use them skillfully. For instance, i always advise professionals to wear 'dark shaded' trousers and 'light shaded' shirts in corporate world because that is the 'norm' in companies. Wearing 'gaudy' colours creates -ve perception.

2. Perceptions are 'subjective interpretations'. Therefore, find the meaning attached by your evaluators to key concepts

Take effort to understand the 'exact meaning' of concepts such as  'good performance', 'hard work', 'smartness' of your key evaluators.

For instance, some bosses evaluate performance of their juniors, based on their 'team-coordination qualities' and not on 'individual contribution'. Some bosses call juniors as 'hard-working' only when they are seen sitting in the office beyond 7 pm. Some bosses consider a junior 'smart' , only when he can prepare a 'jazy ppt'. 

Howsoever subjective these 'qualities' may be defined by bosses, one has to 'adhere' to them during the 'initial period' of work acclimatization with them. On the other hand, because we interact with 'super-bosses', customers and other colleagues infrequently, perception management has to be done 'constantly' with them. 

3. Follow the protocols of behaviour that is prevalent in your organisation

Every organisation has a protocol for the events such as  'disagreeing in a group', 'attending meetings', 'taking personal calls while in meeting', 'writing emails to insiders and outsiders', 'manner of talking in a public place like staircases, corridor or canteens', 'manner of interaction in conference calls' and so on.

Take extra effort to understand these protocols and follow them 'rigidly' without questioning it. If you do not follow them, you are seen as 'black sheep'.

4. Work actively to help evaluators 'assess ' your merit, so that dependence on perception is reduced

Because your field is 'specialised', you have to help others to 'evaluate' your merit appropriately. If you are a 'good hardware engineer' you have to educate others to help them evaluate your 'speciality of hardware engineering'. I know it is hard work. But it is catch-22 situation for you. To evaluate you appropriately,  you have to work hard on 'educating others'. If you do not educate, you still have to work hard on managing their perception, because - without your help- they will keep relying on perception. Both options require hard work. Which option do you prefer?.


Perception management is not 'showing off' or 'branding' for creating the 'right impression'. It is a strategy meant to ensure that your key evaluators 'understand' your merit and do not get put off by the 'initial impression'. If the initial impression is created wrongly, you have to take extra effort to 'undo' the impression. Perception management helps you reduce your 'undoing' effort and start on the 'strong footing' right from the beginning. 

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