Dr. Diane Hamilton and Dr. Maja Zelihic
Our perceptions shape how we process information … how we reach conclusions … how we form opinions … our version of truth, our biases, our likes, our dislikes. Perception is our guide for how we make decisions and how we live our lives. It shapes who we hang out with and who we avoid. It guides us in what careers to seek, what jobs we take, and the type and location of the education we pursue.
Leaders and employers around the world grapple with the same issue Shakespeare’s Juliet posed in the classic tale, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” What is it in what we see, hear or experience that causes each of us to smile or react differently to the exact same experience? What’s in a rose? Well, it depends!
Our brains never cease to amaze us. Through our eyes, ears, and nose, combined with our sense of touch and taste, scientists estimate that we absorb more than a thousand impressions per minute, which collectively tell us what is good, what is bad, what is dangerous and what is desirable.
We developed our sensory abilities as infants¾our ability to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. From those senses, we immediately began to formulate impressions of the world around us. As our abilities and our world expanded, our impressions either changed as we gathered new information, or they became embedded as “truths.” And the longer those stereotypes and biases continued to be reinforced, we are told, they become absolutes. It is those truths that guide our thoughts, our conclusions, and our actions on a daily basis. What shoes to buy. Who to marry. Where to live. Which job to take.
“That looks like a good place to eat.” ”He seemed to be all right.” ”I believed it would help my career.” According to an article in Psychology Today, we make about 35,000 decisions a day (Krochow, 2018). Many are small and insignificant, while some have a major impact on our lives. And all are guided by our perceptions.
Our perceptions are both a conscious and sub-conscious phenomenon. In some situations, we can trace why we do the things we do or make the choices we make. “I always knew I wanted to be a doctor because my father was a doctor.” ”I’m a Hindu because that’s the way I was brought up.”
Yet, in other situations, we are hard-pressed to explain why we shudder at the sight of lima beans or liver, or a colleague we are forced to work with. Many times, we simply can’t explain why we feel the way we do or why we believe what we do. We know people who influenced our lives, but we don’t always know why we like liberals versus conservatives, or why we’re a cat person and not a dog person.
Our perceptions are our compass. They become embedded into our “instincts.” They tell us where to go, where not to go, when to go, and if to go at all. ”I could smell something fishy about him.” ”Something just didn’t seem right.” Perceptions also change. The more we know, the better we see things. Perhaps. Sometimes, those initial perceptions are ”spot on” in our minds. ”I knew from the first moment I saw him that he would be the one.”
Sometimes, we alter our perceptions with new information. “I thought she would be a good fit until I watched her interact with her team.” And sometimes, we hold doggedly to those initial perceptions despite new information. We can be blinded by our perceptions when the truth is in plain sight. ”Despite the bad references, I’m going to go with him. I just feel like he is the best man for the job.”
Our perceptions are heavily influenced by past experiences or our cultural upbringing, but sometimes by nothing more than a snap judgment or visceral reaction. “Why did I immediately dismiss her idea, even though it had merit?” And sometimes, those reactions are governed by our mood at the moment or our general disposition.
To what extent are our perceptions true, and when are they simply, well … just our perceptions? We are told that perception is reality. Is it? It may be our reality, while it may not be others’. Where is that gap between perception and reality? At what point do we reach “truth?” While some people trust their gut based on first impressions, others are accused of “analysis/paralysis.” Which approach gets us closer to what is “real?”
So, just what are those factors that shape our perceptions? And just how do they impact our lives? And, what is it that tells us when our perceptions are taking us down the wrong path? How do we differentiate what are our perceptions and what are the perceptions of others?
How do our truths shape and influence our ability to interact with others? Especially in a world that continues to shrink and become more diverse … across cultures, across countries and across languages?
So, how do we adapt to these new norms if we are to be a part of this new world order? The price of admission for today’s workforce, and more importantly, today’s leaders, requires a new and deeper sense of empathy, a new kind of understanding, in order to participate. And, it is our perceptions that are the vanguard of that adjustment. Reframing how we view others, and how others view us, must be the starting point. And it goes deeper than we may think.
Anil K. Seth, professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex in England, reminds us in his TED Talk (2017) and in other presentations that our perceptions go much deeper than those we garner at a conscious level. The manifestations of our perceptions may reside on the tips of our tongues, but their roots are deeply embedded in our subconscious. It is not sufficient that we merely mouth those perceptual adjustments that are “politically correct.” If we are to truly adapt, we must examine what we believe, and why.
Which brings us to the fundamental purpose of this book, and its ancillary products. We share Professor Seth’s perspective. It is our belief that we must reshape our perceptions, both consciously and unconsciously, to become more responsive to this emerging multi-cultural, multi-language world in which we are now living.
As a contributor, as a leader, and as a fellow human being in this global information economy, we must know when our perceptions are working for us, and when they’re working against us. We must allow our perceptive abilities to grow and keep up with these changes that are occurring at a dizzying pace.
So, can we “monitor” our perceptions, and perhaps guide them towards where we want to go, and away from where we don’t want to go? Absolutely. We can choose what to watch on television, who and who not to associate with. We can gravitate toward those who share our beliefs, and we can explore and learn from those who think differently. That is the foundation of our growth.
Can we “change” or “alter” our perceptions? Again, the answer is yes. We can cultivate our taste for scotch or red wine. We can learn that accents are no indication of intelligence, or that Northerners do not have personas that are cold and impersonal. We can even rethink and reshape our beliefs about capitalism, socialism, or our own political or spiritual beliefs. The more we learn, the more we examine, the more our perceptions change.
So, does this mean we can “manage” our perceptions? We’re three for three here. Once again, the answer is yes. We see what we see. We hear what we hear. We feel what we feel. That is just life coming at us with us having some, but little, control over all that we encounter. And again, some are happening at a conscious level, while others happen unconsciously. But we can control how we think about those things.
How we perceive, not what we perceive, is what influences how and what we think and believe, which, in turn, influences our behaviors. If we are to engage others both of our own and other cultures, it is essential that we become more cognizant, more self-aware of our own perceptions and those of others. It is the archetypical “walk a mile in my shoes.” It is the knowledge that before we can meaningfully engage, I must know where you are coming from; and you must know where I’m coming from.
Our objective is to introduce you to a new and practical approach in which to be more aware of how you perceive; how your perceptions impact your behaviors; how they impact the behaviors of those around you; and, provide you a foundation from which to manage that process. Ours is a simple premise:
Our perceptions are a powerful and, in many cases, subliminal force that play a major role in shaping our attitudes, our behaviors and our interactions with others. Therefore, to work more effectively in a global, multi-cultural environment, a more conscious approach to being aware of, and better managing our perceptions is essential.
Our journey to test and validate that premise is reflected in this book, and a set of companion tools. To outline our findings, we have organized the book into those three basic components:
Part I is to examine the major factors that shape our perceptions … that influence what we believe and why we believe.
Part II is to examine the impact those factors have in shaping our behaviors … how we interact with others, and the implications of those interactions.
Part III is to examine a new practical approach to how you govern your perceptions, and introduce you to some tools to help you do just that.
Can we shape and alter our thinking to allow our perceptions to help us to become more effective as decision makers, as judges of character, as leaders in this new world order? Can that which is such a uniquely individualized and deeply embedded trait of our human condition be shaped? The answer is yes! And it is our intent to demonstrate just that.
Welcome to our journey!
You can learn more about the Power of Perception from our book.