Friday, April 1, 2011

A note about perception

I’ve been reading a book called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.  Last year, my mom cleaned out the closets and gave me a huge box of books (ah, heavenly!). Included were several leadership and management books of my dad’s. They looked interesting, so I put them on the shelf and figured I’d get around to reading them someday.

A couple weeks ago, I picked this one up and decided to give it a whirl. I began reading the first chapter, entitled “Inside Out” and was immediately hooked.

In his first chapter, Mr. Covey covers several important topics (and I urge you to go and get the book – it is a really valuable resource!), but the one that most spoke to me was his discussion about perception.

He begins by describing an experiment in which two groups of people were given two different pictures of a woman to examine for thirty seconds. After looking at their drawings for thirty seconds, the entire group was instructed to look at a third picture, also of a woman. They were given some time to examine the picture and then were asked a series of questions.

“What would you say the age of the woman is?” asked the administrator.

“I’d say she’s about twenty-one or twenty-two,” said a participant from one side of the room.

“What?” said a participant from the other side of the room. “Are you crazy? That is an old woman in that picture – she has to be at least eighty.”

The room erupted in discussion as the participants defended what they saw in the drawing. Each side of the room was certain that what they saw was the truth.

The drawing they were looking at was this:

The first group of participants had looked at this drawing first:

And the second group had examined this drawing first:

When the first group of participants saw the second drawing, the image of the first picture they saw, that of an old woman, had so influenced their perception in just a thirty second viewing, that they immediately saw an old woman in the second picture.

The second group had a similar experience upon seeing their first drawing highlighting the young woman, and saw a young woman in the second picture.

The administrator of the test attempted to get each group to see the other image within the picture and only after pointing out various features – the mouth of the old woman or the nose and eyelashes of the young woman, was he finally able to help the groups see the other image in the picture.

However, once any of the participants looked away from the picture for more than ten seconds, the original perception would return.

So why am I telling you all this?

In our experiences on TMN’s communities, we have all had times where we have looked at a situation a certain way – whether that perception was colored by our upbringing, our passions, our fears. However, there might be another group of people who view that same situation completely differently, based on their individual upbringings, passions and fears.

As illustrated in the experiment, BOTH OF YOU CAN BE EXACTLY RIGHT! Just because you see it differently, doesn’t mean that the other person’s perception can’t be valid and true.

In any leadership position, one of the most important character traits you can have is fairness and impartiality. When you are working with others, it is important to be able to step outside of a situation and see it from all the different angles. You don’t have to agree with those viewpoints, but you have to acknowledge they are there and that they are valid.

Being a good leader means that you look at each situation from the perception of all of the participants. You try to put yourself in that person’s shoes and empathize with their unique situation. You refrain from quick judgment based on initial perceptions, because, as you can plainly see from the experiment above, they may not always be fair.

Mr. Covey has some amazing insight into being an effective leader. I’m not even halfway through the book and I have already had several “paradigm shifts” as he calls them, where my perception of a situation has immediately changed upon learning some important fact or point that I may not have known (like our friends in the experiment who didn’t know that there were actually two different women in the drawing). I really feel that I am growing, not just as a leader, but as a person because of the knowledge he shares. I do urge you, if you can, to check out his book and soak it all in. You will certainly be glad you did.

For those of you who don’t have the time to read it, but would like to get a glimpse of Mr. Covey’s genius, check out this audio book that highlights some of the key points of his book.  

Perception is an amazingly powerful thing. Taking a moment to see how it can affect us allows us to recognize it when it comes into play in our leadership roles and work toward eliminating its negative effect on our thoughts and decisions.

Thank you for taking the time to read this today! Monday, I’ll be talking about the first characteristic of a servant leader: Listening. I’m really looking forward to taking this journey with all of you.

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