Flaubert said there is no truth, only perception. Perception often leads one down blind alleys to misunderstandings, wasted effort, or even failure. In our activities, we often don’t see the forest for the trees. As leaders, we are expected to be better.

We become fixated on what is right in front of us without regard to the broader impact of our decisions. Then when our personal egos and stresses come into play, our perspective is further skewed. Let me provide some examples of what I mean.

I remember many years ago, outside consultants were brought in to hasten a Lean Six Sigma implementation. I must admit I resented the intrusion. We were doing fine. We had the talent internally to accomplish this at our own pace as the conditions weren’t yet right for quick maneuvers.

The roll out presentation really seemed a little condescending; as though we were the great unwashed. It was also lofty with broad strokes and great expectations. We weren’t even done with simple visuals and these guys wanted to pour it on. The amount of data they expected the guys on the floor to collect was egregious. They obviously didn’t know the place. I almost laughed out loud.

When asked my opinion, I remember starting by saying sarcastically, “It’s hard enough to get a 40-year-veteran to even say Poka yoke”, which is actually true. I simply didn’t want to deal with the hassle. When I paused my harangue, one of the presenters said to me, “We know, Steve. That is why you are here.”
Wow. I was immediately disarmed.

In an instant I realized I was being unnecessarily abrasive and combative. I couldn’t see beyond myself. I got all worked up and nearly alienated everybody.

They were more mature than I was that day, and they empathized. What I had construed as criticism was actually a collegial effort and teamwork. Worst of all, I was already mentally creating the conditions for failure. I had completely misconstrued the situation by only hearing what I wanted to hear.

We ended up deciding how best to break it down, tailor and implement in more digestible portions. It worked out fine in the end.

Few things are new just different. In my cell design days, I was on a team tasked with a comprehensive plant overhaul. The facility was built in the ‘40s and for decades each successive regime had moved capital equipment around according to what they perceived as efficient. What was left was really a patchwork of disjointed visions and clutter. The flow was horrible.

After considerable expense and effort, the new layout was accomplished on time. After dedications, congratulations, and prognostications, one of the old timers approached me and said, “Hey, it looks exactly how it did when I started here in 1973.”

The fact that he didn’t intend it to be sarcastic bit even harder.

Nobody had talked to the wisest man in the place. We could have saved considerable time and expense. Our new way of thinking didn’t take into account the lessons of the old. What hubris.

I recall an incident with an employee. He was ten years younger than me and I thought highly of him. A potential rock star, I had been delegating to him because he earned it. One day, a series of fires drew me elsewhere so I left him with some detailed instructions and moved on.

Hours later, when I got back, little had been completed properly. I questioned him. He looked down at the floor, mumbled something, turned and walked away. I wasn’t mad, but more surprised, and tersely said, “What happened to men in the ten years between you and me?” He turned around and said, “Tupac and Marilyn Manson!” It was so immediate and clever I started laughing! The situation was diffused.

I realized a few things. First, there really was a gap of ten years between us in mindset and experience. His formative years and filter were different than mine. I had failed to appreciate this and my instructions were probably not as clear as I thought, anyway.

Plus, I had probably been expecting too much of him too fast and I backed off a little. Too much pressure too quick could have forced errors that would have made him lose confidence in his decisions.

Sometimes people will not cooperate with you just because they have cooperated so many times in the past that they feel compelled to push back even if just for appearances.

His coworkers had been acting like children and giving him a hard time with the teacher’s pet stuff. Amused, I gave them more attention and they quieted down. The point is that I hadn’t considered how my activities were perceived as favoritism. Just like your children, never let them know who your favorite is.

Leadership is hard business. All eyes are on you. As you move about, impressions are continually being formed. With some forethought you can avoid being misinterpreted. Consider your audience and be aware of queues you are sending, but don’t over think it either — be natural.

Practice your delivery and get to know how your people process information individually and collectively. Read them and adjust. Decide what influences are coloring their opinion and address them.

Plan as best you can. Pay attention to everyone. Stay calm. Strive for clarity in your communications and listen to people for their intended meaning before blurting out a reply.

Be conscious of your surroundings and introspective regarding your actions. Prime people where possible and create perception. Good luck.