How many of you remember growing up and playing on the playground? What did you say when someone said something mean or hurtful to you? Maybe you said what many children have said when you repeated a little saying.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Oh, how I wish that were true. As we have gotten older, we have realized that words hurt more than the sticks and the stones. In fact, I heard a person say one time that “it is not what you think about me or even say about me that hurts me. It is what I think about what you think about me or say about me that hurts me.” What they are saying is that it is my perception about something that drives my behaviors.
What does this have to do with leadership?
I am working on some “appendix material” for my upcoming book. And I am working on a leadership development resource for 1-on-1 mentoring. I am working on the issue of self-awareness or self-perception. My focus for that section is on how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us, and how we perceive that others perceive us. This can almost become a carnival house of mirrors scenario where that loop can become almost infinite. So, let’s not go that far.
Psychologists often use words like self-perception, other perception, and meta-perception. They indicate that we can be good or bad at each the of perception. I love alliteration. It helps me cement a concept in my mind. So, I am modifying their words to help me get a better grip on them and their leadership implications. So, I will use Self-Perception, Social-Perception, and Circular-Perception.
Self-Perception is simply a matter of how you see yourself. Our role as leadership mentors is to help our protégés to help them really see themselves as they are. And not just as they perceive themselves or even as others perceive them to be. Let’s face it. Very few of us are “black belts” at self-awareness. mentors must never come across as having become too much of an expert in this regard.
But what can a mentor do? There are a lot of ways to try to gauge someone’s self-perception. I am on record as being a huge fan of “360” surveys and assessments. You can ask them to self-assess their ability to be self-aware and have valid self-perception. Then, you can help them take an online assessment and then compare the results. How close are the two perspectives?
Accurate self-perception comes from frequent and candid feedback from peers, managers, staff, friends, and followers. Those who seek out this kind of feedback and then take the time to reflect on that feedback tend to have a more accurate or realistic view of themselves. Further, they can begin to predict how they will react under various stressful or emotional circumstances. They will begin to be able to determine those around them that genuinely like them from those who are using them or using them to further their own agenda. Wouldn’t you like to have that kind of clarity?
Social-Perception is about beginning to take a step back and look at the social implications and even the motivations of the other person. This begins to address that little children’s saying about the emotional impact versus the physical impact that takes a toll on us.
The danger here is that we become too “clinical” in our approach and we subjugate or deny our own emotional state and response. Instead, we need to work with our protégés and help them to begin to pick up the nuanced words and tones. They need to be able to spot the non-verbal clues that can help us better understand the social settings of life. They must be perceptive on multiple levels.
Cyclical-Perception finally deals with how we feel about how we perceive others are feeling about us or about a specific emotional event. In other words, it is your perception of others people’s perception of you. Do you get it? It can become a cycle of how I initially perceive something, then how I perceive that you may perceive it, and then how I perceive what I perceive about how you are perceiving it. This is almost like looking in those carnival mirrors! But, it is really nothing more than the skill of reading the audience; of understanding how others will behave, or of predicting how they will react to a particularly emotional event.
How Perceptive Are You?
Alas, this is not just a leadership development issue. This is not isolated to the young and the still-developing leader. Pride and ego can cloud our perceptions to such an extent that nothing that we perceive is valid. But a “master perceiver” is a valuable skill in any walk of life. Especially for a developing and aspiring leader.