How Great Leaders Manage Perceptions

As a leader, how adept are you at communicating your true intentions and managing perceptions? Even at the highest levels of government and business, leaders struggle to communicate their intentions. Most of us have some demonstrable deficiencies when it comes to influencing others. 

“You can influence people’s perceptions of you by playing to their needs. Once you understand how to make other people feel comfortable with you, you’ve won their approval.” —Corporate marketing consultant Camille Lavington, You’ve Only Got Three Seconds (Main Street Books, 1998)

A leader’s words may be misinterpreted, misquoted and/or taken out of context. Communicating and managing perceptions remain significant challenges in business. Leaders cannot succeed without consistently and accurately telegraphing their thoughts and intentions. If you want to shape others’ perceptions, you must take control of the messages you send.

Major problems with this can occur when listeners distort your words to fit their own existing views. Their personal agendas and beliefs may prevent them from liking, trusting, or even noticing you.

I know this workplace dynamic is seldom logical or fair. The fact is that some workers can be biased and inflexible, and their actions are largely unconscious and automatic. I hear this from the executives I work with [link]. It’s a big challenge for all leaders.

Think of your last verbal workplace exchange. You probably thought you explained yourself well and that your listeners understood you. Here’s the unvarnished truth: You—and they—likely didn’t. How, then, can we ensure that people really hear what we want to communicate?

The Perception Process

Perceivers (your audience) are prone to perceptual errors governed by rules and biases we can identify and anticipate. Understanding this predisposition allows us to unlock this perception puzzle. As leaders, we can alter our words and actions to send desired signals.

Listeners experience a flurry of brain activity as they try to comprehend what you’re saying. They’re also sizing you up, forming opinions of you and your message, comparing you to others, and remembering similar situations and opinions in their past experience.

Most of what happens in perceivers’ minds is automatic and unconscious. This is Phase 1 of the perception process, and it is riddled with bias.

In Phase 2, perceivers use the part of the brain concerned with logic and reason. This is a much more effortful thinking process, one that requires energy. Consequently, they tend to avoid it to conserve brain resources.

More often than not, Phase 2 is never activated. People form opinions of you and your message with Phase 1 assumptions, just the surface of what you are saying, and then they move on.

Most leaders are unaware of these basic brain behaviors, so they never take the time needed to push their listeners past quick, stereotypical judgments.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your experiences. You can contact me here, or on LinkedIn.