Dealing With Distorted Perceptions

The Problem.  Each of us sees the world through our own lens.  Inevitably, this means that different people will interpret the same event differently.  It also means that in many cases, “perception is reality.”  Employers and managers can live with that – they have no choice – and it’s an essential principle to keep in mind when navigating the waters of employee relations, motivation, and communication. 

What can create more difficult problems is when an employee’s perceptions cross the line from individual to distorted.  By this I mean situations where (1) there is a reality; (2) the employee has an alternate, incorrect view of that reality; and (3) the employee genuinely believes his or her perception is correct.  

Over the years, I’ve seen this many times: The manager who drives his people crazy by thinking decisions have been made that haven’t.  The employee who sees every negative action as discrimination or harassment.  The employee who sees even positive actions as discrimination or harassment!  Anyone who has conducted a workplace investigation has met this person. 

In situations such as these, it may not be that difficult for the employer to validly decide that the employee’s view is incorrect, or in more formal terms, “not substantiated by the evidence.”  Where the real difficulty comes up, however, is what to do next.  Among the possible problems: 

  • The employee tenaciously holds onto his or her distorted perceptions and keeps them brewing
  • The employee’s distorted perceptions may reflect a mental disability of some kind
  • The employee’s targets remain angry at being falsely accused of wrongdoing
  • The employer believes the employee should be disciplined for making a false allegation. 

The Solution.  Following are some suggested approaches to the above problems. If you have other ideas, we’d love to hear them! 

  • Faced with the complainant who just won’t quit, an employer can tell the employee that he or she may talk only to HR, the union, or other named representatives about their concerns, not co-workers. 
  • If the employee’s distorted perceptions may reflect a mental disability, the employer must treat it the same as it would any workplace disability.  Consultation with a disability expert or attorney may be helpful.
  • The employer should certainly inform any accused parties that the evidence did not support the allegations and no wrongdoing on their part was found.  If the complainant is not holding onto misperceptions too strongly, it may be helpful to have a facilitated discussion between the complainant and the accused.  During this discussion, each can explain why they did what they did and how the other’s actions made them feel.  The two can develop a plan for moving forward.   
  • Sometimes an employer feels it just can’t say, “Perceptions will be perceptions” and let a false allegation go because the situation is so egregious that some sort of discipline seems warranted.  The danger here, of course, is that the employee will claim retaliation for filing a complaint.  In cases such as this, the employer should consult with a legal advisor to determine the risks and benefits of discipline.   ~AS
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