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Working to correct our (mis)perceptions about others

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November 17, 2022

Bridget, a president at a paper mill, has been in her position for over two decades, and it is time for her to select a successor.
“I just don’t know if he is the right guy,” Bridget contemplated aloud.

Over the last several months, Bridget has put the three most qualified individuals from the leadership team through a battery of interviews, assignments and organizational psych evaluations.

She has collected a great deal of data that seems to indicate one particular candidate, Joseph, is best suited to succeed her.
But Bridget does not like the idea of developing Joseph to assume her role.

“What is it about Joseph, that’s giving you pause?” I asked over lunch one day.

Bridget looked thoughtful and said, “I can’t put my finger on it.”

Being honest with ourselves
Through several discussions with a variety of mentors and confidantes, Bridget eventually put her finger on the issue – she does not like Joseph’s attitude.

Certainly, Bridget appreciates his effectiveness as a vice president, and she can’t argue with the results he produces for the organization – however, she harbors feelings of frustration toward Joseph’s apparent self-centered ambition, which she has become accustomed to ignoring as long as he does his job well.

As a result of her disdain for his attitude, she has also become accustomed to avoiding spending time with Joseph whenever possible.

Now that she needs to make a recommendation to the board as to who her successor should be, and in light of Joseph’s glowing interviews and evaluations, she is forced to reckon with her feelings and perceptions about Joseph.

Naming the issue
Bridget’s greatest concern is that Joseph’s singular goal is to maneuver his way into the president role solely because he desires the status and pay that accompany it.

In fact, she believes he somehow feels entitled to the role because he has been working with her longer than any other person on the senior leadership team.

Because of this, all of Joseph’s workplace successes are suspicious to her, likely ways to achieve his own ends, rather than serve the people he leads or the organization.

However, the battery of organizational psych evaluations and interviews paints a totally different – and much more positive – picture of Joseph, his character and his intentions.

Challenging our perceptions
Given the discrepancy between Bridget’s perception of Joseph and the impartial data from the selection process, the best next step is for Bridget to look for counter-evidence to challenge her perceptions.

That means Bridget needs to stop avoiding Joseph.

Specifically, Bridget needs to spend time with Joseph so that her assumptions about him can be challenged, and if appropriate, replaced with more objective and accurate information.

A recurring one-on-one meeting to talk about business is an appropriate way to create time to get to know one another better.
In-person would be ideal, but virtual meetings can suffice.

As business is discussed, Bridget can model curiosity, ask questions about Joseph’s perspectives and actions, and perhaps, teach him about her own points of view.

If that feels too formal, perhaps Bridget could grab lunch with Joseph every few weeks, which may provide a more relaxed environment to catch up on the organization’s business and get to know or understand one another better.

Or she could invite him to work on a project with her that would cause them to spend time together planning and collaborating.

The bottom line is that, as leaders, we can sometimes jump to conclusions or make assumptions about people in the workplace because their personalities or work styles are different than ours – they remind us of that toxic friend from high school, they communicate more or less assertively than we prefer or any number of (often unconscious) criteria.

It’s our responsibility to identify and challenge those perceptions in order to lead with a fair mind and a good heart.
So, in whatever manner Bridget deems appropriate, it’s time for her to get to know Joseph, not the person she may have (mis)perceived him to be.
Terri Jacke is the founder and President of Inspired Training Institute, Inc., an executive coaching and organizational development firm, and author of Is This a Lousy Job or Is It Me?: A Real-Life Guide for Achieving Success at Work.

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