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What To Do When Perceptions Aren’t Reality

by Steve Willis

What To Do When Perceptions Aren’t Reality

Dear Steve,

For the past five years or so, I’ve often heard the phrase “perception is reality” and it makes me cringe. On one hand, I can see that in the heat of the moment it is very helpful to understand what the other person is feeling or perceiving to gain common ground and reach understanding. However, I mostly see the phrase used to justify those “Heat of the Moment” feelings and to make the case that your perceptions are truth and are also valid for all eternity. When a child says, “I hate you” to a disciplining parent, we usually agree it’s a temporary feeling and will pass once the sting of discipline has come and gone. However, for some, there seems to be a general acceptance that how they feel is valid now and forever, almost as an excuse for not exerting self-control. Your thoughts?

Searching for Reality

Dear Searching,

Like you, I’ve heard this phrase tossed around since the beginning of my career—some twenty plus years ago. While the original intention was to serve as a reminder that people equate their perceptions of their experiences as their reality, it soon became a way to justify inaction, unfair or uninformed judgements, or to pursue the easiest path forward. It started to become yet another, more acceptable way of declaring, “serenity now!”

Before I get too far into this, I should disclose that I started my career designing and analyzing organizational assessments in all their varieties. I played my part in slathering on a fair number of these types of phrases to position our services. But as I’ve studied both sides of the issue over the past twenty years, I’ve come to a more complete understanding of the concept. Perception is indeed reality . . . unless you take action to make it otherwise.

Here’s how it works. There is a specific brain science (or brain curse for some) that comes into play here. Our brains are wired to help us identify and handle complex patterns of behaviors. It starts doing so when these patterns are first created—from the very first appearance of the very first instance. In these moments, we very quickly formulate a hypothesis as to why said instance came to be, as well as how it fits into our world. And here’s where things get interesting: Once this new perception is created, the brain starts looking for confirming data that this is reality. In its search, the brain will accept all kinds of data as confirming data—regardless of whether it is, in fact, confirming data.

So, there you have it. The brain draws a tentative conclusion which very quickly converts from perception into reality. That is, unless you take action to make it otherwise. Here’s what I mean: the longer this new perception goes unchallenged, the closer to reality it becomes. That’s why these perceptions are so difficult to dismiss verbally. You need to actively generate a new data stream—one that helps people realign to reality.

One of my long-time partners, Kerry Patterson, described the phenomenon this way: “In an uncertain atmosphere, all ambiguous behaviors will be interpreted negatively. And by the way, all behaviors are ambiguous.” So, don’t leave it up to perception to decide what something means, take action to reverse the perception curse.

One of the most effective ways is to engage in symbolic actions. A symbolic action is any interaction taken where others who witness it will walk away knowing your values and priorities. While they can take many forms, there are some big categories of symbolic actions to tap into including sacrifices of time, previous priorities, and ego.

Next time you hear “perception is reality” ask yourself what actions would provide unmistakable data about reality?

Time: How can I, and/or other leaders, make time to demonstrate our highest priority? What meetings or events should we attend? Are there opportunities to share messages or teach mini-lessons that would reinforce desired values? Am we present for both formal and informal gatherings? How could we spend my time in a way that sends a positive message about our desired reality?

Priorities: What is most important to our team? What alignments could be made in work, projects, and other initiatives to demonstrate what matters most? Are there previous priorities we can put aside in favor of higher value ones?

Ego: Are there times and/or places where I haven’t walked the talk? Do I need to publicly acknowledge personal shortcomings? Have others coached me to become better? If so, how can I recognize their contributions? How can I demonstrate that even though I fall short, I keep on practicing to get better?

Bottom line, when others justify their behavior or attitudes by their perceptions, you can counteract the incorrect assumptions they’ve made by asking yourself, “What could I do that would be visible and meaningful? What would create new data points that would help individuals realign their perceptions with reality?”

Best of luck,

From the Authors of


"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader."

John Quincy Adams


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