The Power of Perception in Organizations

As leaders strive to improve their corporate cultures, they often neglect to recognize a pivotal contributor to the success or failure of their organizations. The most effective leaders understand the value of perception. When we hear that word, we might think of an Internet meme of whether we see the blue or gold dress. Or, we might envision a picture with two circles that fool us into thinking they are different sizes. However, perception is much more than just how we see things. If we incorporate our intellect (IQ), emotions (EQ), culture (CQ), and curiosity (CQ2), we get our perception quotient (PQ). Through understanding the value of perception, leaders can tap into their employees’ abilities to improve communication and develop awareness by asking questions, which leads to developing empathy and interpersonal skills. Without recognizing the interconnection of these crucial components, organizations can miss opportunities to improve partnerships, expand into new markets, build innovation, and become a key player in a global economy. Because of this, there has never been a more critical time to develop our perceptual awareness. That begins with understanding the process.

Perception and Curiosity

Curiosity is a critical component of this process. I was drawn to studying curiosity after working as a doctoral chair, MBA program chair, and associate professor for fourteen years. Having written my doctoral dissertation on emotional intelligence and its impact on performance, I became particularly intrigued by how to assess behaviors in the workplace.  After years of researching thousands of people, I determined the four factors that inhibit curiosity, which include fear, assumptions, technology, and our environment. Through that research, I discovered that curiosity was a critical spark that ignited motivation, drive, engagement, innovation, and a host of issues that leaders hoped to improve within their organizations. The connection of curiosity with perception was something that I found especially intriguing.

As we ask questions and explore opportunities, we must process what we learn. If our perception is our reality, then we must also recognize that everyone else’s perception is their reality. But what does that mean for how we get along in the business world? If we do not understand the process others go through when they perceive themselves and others, we miss opportunities to connect in ways that could leap hurdles never thought possible to overcome.

The Process

Just as I had researched curiosity, I surveyed thousands of people to determine the things that impact our perception. It turns out that perception is an EPIC process.


The perception process begins with evaluation. To illustrate a company that grasped the importance of evaluation, consider a top pharmaceutical corporation I worked for in the mid-80s. As part of their performance review process, they rated employees on their concern for impact. Long before theories of emotional intelligence had become well-known, this organization wanted to ensure their sales professionals had strong self-awareness. Having effective communication skills can be critical for any organization. However, conflict, sarcasm, misconceptions, and other perception-related issues can cause communication to break down. We all must deal with emotions; how we respond to those emotions in a moment of stress can be critical to our success. What is vital is to determine how to evaluate people’s communication needs. We must delve into their emotions for real understanding.

How we evaluate individuals and situations involve recognition of the importance of self-awareness, communication, and other interpersonal skills that get lumped into the category described as soft skills. Consider how younger generations might have unique ways of communicating that might not go over well with older generations and vice versa. With an increasingly diverse workplace, organizations must recognize the importance of self-evaluation and its impact on how others perceive us. The ability to understand our own emotions can include how we handle stress and how well we demonstrate self-control. Beyond emotions, though, we must self-assess our body language, our ability to show vulnerability and forgiveness when necessary, and recognize how physical things like tone, gender, and tendency to stereotype can get in the way of how others perceive us. This understanding is all part of our concern for impact.


Conditions for effective negotiations require us to look at things from an outside perspective and predict how our decisions can impact our intended outcome. Consider the case of Ryanair. In an ultra-competitive industry and after a string of blunders by airlines like United, Ryanair decided to implement the Always Getting Better program, which focused on the things they determined were annoying to their customers, including hidden charges, unallocated seating, and carry-on baggage restrictions. Leaders could easily have decided what they deemed essential to their customers and neglected to predict based on actual analysis. But, they focused on making predictions on data.  As important as self-assessment is to the evaluation process, assessing others’ needs is critical to the prediction process.

Prediction involves researching, assigning meaning to variables, and considering how inaccuracies might play a part in interactions. We must recognize that people like to be rewarded and recognized for their work and contributions. How people prefer to receive recognition can vary. Part of improving our empathy and interpersonal relationships requires us to ask questions of others. We must be able to determine what makes customers raving fans. That requires we display curiosity. We must ask the right questions and recognize the value of evaluating the data. Only then can we adjust to meet their needs.


As we learn more about others, we must be able to interpret what we uncover. We know the value of asking questions can improve corporate cultures. A company that genuinely grasps how to interpret the value of what they have learned from asking questions of their employees is Netflix. Their organization’s culture presentation has been so popular; it has been downloaded more than 12 million times since 2009. By questioning employees’ desires to be truly engaged at work, they created a generous corporate perk program with unlimited vacations, flexible work schedules, and limited supervision. Many of these issues were critically important to younger generations. Exploring how generational influences and other cultural factors might have influenced the data is an integral part of the interpretation process.

Through asking questions, we can learn more about our employees’ and customers’ needs. We must explore the value everyone places on rewards. We must consider how growing up in a particular area, of a certain race, of a specific gender, might influence how we interpret meaning. If we shut out options because things have never been done that way in our past, we might be just buying into status quo thinking. By using curiosity to explore possibilities with an open mind and with foresight for how it could impact the future, we can see value in everyone’s insights.

Correlation and Conclusion:

All the research in the world is not helpful if we neglect to look for correlations and make informed conclusions. Acting on those results is critical. This process can require leaders to share their passion and vision. Consider the story of Frederick Smith, who came up with the idea for overnight delivery in 1962 that he outlined in a paper while attending Yale. In 1971 he founded Federal Express. The company failed to take off initially and wasn’t profitable until 1975. The now multi-billion-dollar company was funded in part by money Smith made while gambling in Vegas. He eventually was able to raise $11 million to keep the company afloat. He was able to take a ground-breaking idea and convince shareholders that they might not make money for many years. To get others to see his vision, required the ability to propose his conclusion based on research. He considered their emotions and their need to hear reasoning that resonated with them based on their experiences.

When we negotiate or create presentations, we take all that we have learned from our evaluation, prediction, and interpretation and use fact-finding to research potential pitfalls. We consider what could threaten a positive outcome. We have backup plans for how to handle rejection or lack of receptiveness. As we present our ideas and conclusions, we consider the good and bad associations people will have toward our points based on their experiences. When we negotiate or communicate, findings will be based on perceived potential weaknesses and threats. Just as with any proper SWOT analysis, we must have steps to overcoming those threats and weaknesses. That requires fact-finding, variable consideration, the foresight to see potential associations others might make based on their gender, culture, or another vantage point.


For organizations that recognize the value of improving recognition of perception, they can focus on these four parts of the process to build on their training programs. As they develop curiosity, they see the value of questions that lead to empathy. When we can look at situations from unique vantage points, it opens a world of opportunity for improved communication and productivity.


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