Lead with the best version of yourself.

Perception is Reality, But is it?

by M. Chris Wingate

Perception is reality. We’ve all heard this phrase; and most of us have likely used it at some point in time. When leaders use the phrase “perception is reality” they are likely making assumptions about others without taking the time to learn if the perception is accurate. This phrase is rooted in a lack of humility and needs to be removed from our lexicon once and for all.

According to psychologists, a more accurate phrase is “perception is my reality.” Leaders often use “perception is reality” as a heuristic due to either being too busy or uninterested in asking additional questions to understand what’s really going on. Having the maturity to ask questions and determine why takes time, patience, and humility.  

Said a different way, perception is reality is a leader’s inability or lack of interest in understanding the character or motives of the individual in question. I’m guilty of it. I’ve used it in the past as a junior officer and I honestly did not think much of it at the time. Unconsciously I thought, “My boss said it, so I’m going to say it because he (or she) is successful, and I want to be like them someday.” So, we emulate those who have gone before us and inadvertently display the same lack of humility while never taking a step back to explore what we’re really saying to our subordinates.

According to Dr. Linda Humphreys, PhD, “Perception is merely a lens or mindset from which we view people, events, and things. In other words, we believe what we perceive to be accurate, and we create our own realities based on those perceptions. And although our perceptions feel very real, that doesn’t mean they are factual.”

Our perception informs our relationships with our subordinates, peers, and leaders. Dr. Humphreys says that “our past experiences greatly influence how we decode certain people, things, and situations and those experiences may trigger us to interpret our subordinates’ actions through a positive or negative lens. Our individual bias impacts our perception of any given situation.” Left unchecked, this lack of humility could also breed a negative command climate and impact retention and recruiting.

Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, mental health expert, and executive director of Innovation 360 says, “misperceiving certain situations, likely because of previous negative experiences, can also cause us to miss out on some fantastic things life has to offer…” I offer it can cause us to miss out key interpersonal connections with our greatest resource – our people.

Do we frustrate our retention efforts with our inability to accurately perceive situations with our servicemembers when we don’t understand what’s going on in our Soldiers lives? Are life events requiring additional attention and impacting their ability to adequately balance work duties with personal responsibility at home? True readiness of the force begins at home. The example we set as leaders informs our Soldiers’ ability to take care of their greatest legacy – their family. In order to continue the progress towards being a people first organization, we need to set our own perceptions and personal bias aside and ask the tough questions to understand reality.

So how do we fix it? A few ways are through self-reflection, empathy, humility and believing the best.

1. Self-reflect. Changing our perceptions requires us, first and foremost to take responsibility of our unconscious reactions. Only then can we begin to see people, events, things, and ourselves from a more neutral perspective. Leaders are seen as humble when they are aware of their limitations and abilities and apply that understanding in their leadership.

ADP 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession states “A leader with the right level of humility is a willing learner, maintains accurate self-awareness, and seeks out others’ input and feedback. Our perception can only be reality if we support or refute our assumption by taking the time to understand the character, reactions, and motives of our Soldiers.

2. People first begins with empathy. Merriam-Webster defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another -of either the past or present – without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. True empathy directly contradicts “perception is reality” and demands our attention. We can no longer provide lip service to those we serve without objectively empathizing with the reality of their individual situations separate from our own pre-conceived bias.

3. Humility mandates perception is not reality. ADP 6-22, defines the character attribute of humility in its simplest form as the absence of arrogance. Arrogance is defined as an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions. A phrase like “perception is reality’ is a presumptuous claim and a dangerous assumption. As such, having the humility to learn something new about ourselves and others – regardless of rank or position – is an essential attribute for leaders to embody. Humility is largely determined by other people and is a subjective perception of the leader. Knowing that, we can reasonably conclude the phrase “perception is reality” is either a manifestation of arrogance or a lack of humility.

4. Believe the best. My wife and I agreed early on in our marriage that we would always work to believe the best of each other. Eight years into our marriage with four kids ages six and under, believing the best has never been more critical and helpful when navigating the occasional “intense fellowship.” When that occurs, we are able to quickly disarm each other and dissolve the disagreement by simply asking, “Are we believing the best?” 

Businessman Henry Gruland says, “Being a leader is more than just wanting to lead. Leaders have empathy for others and a keen ability to find the best in people, not the worst, by truly caring for others.”

In the military, we’re so accustomed to perceiving things a certain way that sometimes it’s difficult to see our own blind spots and where we are not viewing situations in the most favorable light. Believing the best and asking additional questions may guard against poor interactions and dissolve otherwise frustrating situations.

If we take time to empathize with our subordinates, then we are able to more effectively assess our interactions based on each Soldier’s individual situation rather than our own pre-conceived bias. Dr. Humphreys says, “change of any kind requires willingness. Having a desire to see things differently and the humility to admit we do not have it all figured out is a vital component to improving our own leadership…The desire,” Dr. Gilliland adds, “creates room for us to learn and create new perceptions.” 

Perception is not always reality, but it is our reality. Changing perceptions begins with us. Let’s collectively agree to set aside our pre-conceived biases, create new perceptions, and remove “perception is reality” from our lexicon once and for all.

Chris Wingate is an Aeromedical Evacuation Officer stationed at the Pentagon as the HQDA G3/5/7 (DAMO-AV) MEDEVAC Action Officer. He was formerly a Brigade Operations and Executive Officer and was a principal select for AMEDD Battalion Command.

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