The “Perception Is Reality” Trap

We all know the phrase, “perception is reality.” And in a psychological sense it is true: we all experience the world through our own lens and that is our reality.

In the world of human resources management, however, I find that this phrase can muddy up the analysis necessary to effectively lead and manage employees. This occurs particularly in workplace investigation and conflict resolution contexts where it is all too easy to be sucked into an unreasonable employee’s perceptual wormhole.

Here’s how problems arise. When applying harassment policies, we are taught that it’s the impact of an employee’s actions on another that matter rather than the employee’s intent. This is often true: someone may think they’re “joking” when they make a sexist or racist remark, but regardless of their intent, such remarks can still be harassment based on their impact on the recipient.

This does not mean, however, that any and all perceptions, i.e., impacts, are created equal. Because the law also provides that the recipient’s reaction to an action or remark must be “reasonable,” i.e., based on some objective reality. Some examples:

  • A female employee sees posted in a male employee’s cubicle a birthday card with a scantily clad female on the front. Can she ask management to direct him to take down the card? Sure. Can she argue that the card in and of itself has created a hostile work environment for her? Not so much. However upset she may be about the card, her perceptions do not trump the fact that a reasonable woman would not find her workplace imbued with gender hostility based on a co-worker’s birthday card with a bikini-clad woman on the front. And she needs to be told that. [And yes, this was a real case.]
  • An employee contends that he feels “unsafe” after his supervisor critiques his job performance in a closed door meeting. Or he contends that the supervisor was “abusive” for telling him he could be terminated if his repeated tardiness continued. The employer will certainly want to check into these allegations to make sure the supervisor did not behave inappropriately. But once the employer is comfortable that the supervisor was just doing his or her job, the complaining employee must be told that in no uncertain terms.

It’s hard to tell a complaining employee “in no uncertain terms” that his or her perceptions are incorrect. Such messages must be delivered kindly and without any suggestion that the employee is lying or crazily hypersensitive.

In appropriate cases, moreover, management may want to take some steps to at least partially acknowledge the complaint (“We have told him to take the birthday card down” “Would you rather meet with your supervisor in a conference room next time?”) But it is critical at the same time not to enable or encourage employees to maintain their unreasonable perceptions.

Why not just give in? After all, that “unreasonable” employee may decide to bring a lawsuit against an employer for not taking the actions he or she demanded. So yes, it is important for an employer to take complaints seriously even in cases involving “perceptually challenged” employees.

At the same time, such employees often have a highly negative impact on both co-workers and managers, to the point that these others may leave. After the due diligence is completed, therefore, it is equally important to insist on a level of sanity and reason in the workplace.

Any additional thoughts on this issue? ~Amy Stephson

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One response to “The “Perception Is Reality” Trap

  1. People often need, even if they do not want, a reality check. If one is needed and you look the other way, their faulty perception is validated and grows stronger. Equals bigger and ongoing problems.

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