The Power of Perceptions

Kung Fu Panda, Confirmation Bias, The Dean Scream, & Negative Reinforcing Loops

“The secret ingredient of my secret ingredient soup is…nothing! There is no secret ingredient. To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.”

explained Mr. Ping, mentor to Kung Fu Panda in the eponymous movie.  If we believe something is true, we look for data that confirms our belief, also known as confirmation bias.  If we believe washing our car makes it rain, we will take special notice, and angry umbrage, at those times when we wash our car and it rains.  And we will likely not take notice of those times it doesn’t rain on our clean car.  Our expectation causes us to look for reinforcing data.  Thus the power of expectations in the workplace.  If we believe an employee is a good employee, we will be more likely to notice actions and behaviors that reinforce our belief.  In the same way, if we believe an employee to be a poor employee we will be more likely to notice negative behaviors.

On January 19, 2004 in Iowa Howard Dean works the crowd at one of his rallies like a charismatic statesman, inspiring his followers with plans for the future, laying out his path to the white house.  At the end of his speech he let out an impassioned scream.  The crowd barely notices, but the press takes hold of it.  The sound bite is created.  The narrative is set to go along with the sound bite.  “Howard Dean’s temperament is an issue.”  With each replay the perception is reinforced.  Less than one month later he drops out of the race after leading the field just weeks prior.  The same thing happens in the stock market, with sports teams, in social groups, and in the workplace.  All it takes in the workplace is an employee or a manager to plant a seed of poor performance.  “Did you notice John’s performance has been slipping?”  The paradigm is set.  Suddenly John’s co-workers start noticing issues.  John feels the pressure, perhaps gets defensive, perhaps withdraws.  His performance suffers.  Once initiated, negative reinforcing loops take on a life of their own, and become extremely difficult to undo; especially in a highly-competitive and/or toxic workplace.

Perceptions are inevitable–and their impact is powerful.  Thus managing perceptions in the workplace is a critical skill.  As leaders we must ensure we’re creating a positive work environment by managing perceptions.

  1. Reflect on your own perceptions and biases that you have for your team members. Pay close attention to those with personalities and styles that are different than your own.  You’re more likely to view them as poor performers, when they may just have a different approach.
  2. Look for the best in others. When viewing other’s behavior, make sure you’re focusing on the positive.  Look for positive behaviors to recognize and reinforce in public.  Help set positive reinforcing loops.
  3. Share negative feedback in private. In general, always praise in public and criticize in private.  This allows for developmental feedback while still effectively managing perceptions in the workpl
  4. Look out for negative behaviors in others. Ensure you don’t have employees who are sabotaging the efforts of others through bad-mouthing and negativity.  Other employees can foster negative perceptions just as leaders can.

Earl Nightingale once said “Our environment, the world in which we live and work, is a mirror of our attitudes and expectations.”  Let’s make sure they’re positive ones.

Post Courtesy of: Jeff Mikula, President & Lead Consultant, New Dimensions in Learning