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Perception Is Powerful

Once when I was little I went on a class trip to the World Trade Center. We went to the observation deck, 100 or more stories off the ground. It was a clear day and as you can imagine, the view was amazing. My classmates and I oohed and aahed over how far we could see in practically every direction.

Image courtesy of howstuffworks.com

One of the things I remember was looking down to the street below and being riveted by the activity. The cars and people didn’t look normal. From that perspective they weren’t human, they were alien. Being so small in my vision, their movement reminded me of ants that I would see sometimes, scurrying to and fro from their tunnels in the ground. And I have to say, when it came to ants, I was a mean kid. While I enjoyed watching their movements, it was a rare moment that I wouldn’t casually stomp them or do something equally cruel. I had no connection to them; in my young mind they weren’t real.

Fast forward up until a few months ago…

My children and I are watching MythBusters on TV. It’s a program where the hosts attempt to debunk various myths and legends. In the episode we were watching, they were exploring the urban myth of a penny, if dropped from the top of the Empire State Building, would be able to penetrate someone’s skull, thus killing them.

It was a fun and engaging episode, and it contained the obligatory, “Kids, don’t try this at home!” message. They also thoroughly debunked the myth, although not without someone hurting themselves in the process. So it surprised me that not one, but both of my children expressed a real interest in putting it to the test. Surprised, I asked them why. They thought it would be fun, they said. For them, in spite of the warning issued and the fact that it was a myth, the idea that you could still hurt someone didn’t register. The danger to those on the street wasn’t real to them.

Fast forward to last week…

I’m perusing the Internet when I learned that on March 6th, 1857, the decision in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case was issued by the United States Supreme Court. This decision asserted that African peoples in the US were not citizens. Further, it stated that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery because slaves were personal property. In a literal sense people of African descent, whether free or slave, were not real.

Dred Scott photo courtesy of Wikipedia

It’s a frightening concept, to know that at one time your ancestors were considered property, or worse. Unfortunately, vile treatment isn’t exclusive to people of color. Women in the United States and elsewhere have gone through similar trials. For example, it wasn’t until 1920 that woman earned the right to vote. That’s less than 100 years ago!

What do these three items have in common with each other?

Perception is powerful. Whether it’s a child believing himself to be all powerful, as well as oblivious to consequences, or a group believing that another isn’t worthy, legally or otherwise, of equal status, perception helps to shape our reality.

In a business setting, we often see this as a disconnect between senior leaders and line employees. Leaders have a tough job. They must create, articulate, and motivate those around them to fulfill organizational objectives. They have to make decisions that can have a widespread impact on the company’s health. Yet to those “in the trenches” it appears that decisions are being made in isolation, removed from the day-to-day realities that they face. This can turn to frustration, impacting productivity and morale. How then do you bridge the gap, to enable all parties to understand each other?

I don’t have an easy answer. Some solutions depend on organizational type, geography, internal demographics, political landscape, and numerous other factors. Clear and consistent communication is important. Being able to truly listen may help, as does putting different people together instead of letting them remain in their respective silos. In my kids’ case, it was talking to them and helping them understand the difference between what happens on TV and in real life. I guided them to awareness, in this case the idea that being mindful of others helps to mitigate harm. Accidents or calamities may appear to be funny onscreen, and it’s usually okay to not take it seriously. However, in real life events can have unfortunate consequences.

Perception is powerful, as showcased in this post by my three examples. What must always be remembered, by all parties, is that that we all are relevant. We are real, the work we do matters, and that understanding this perspective provides a framework for bridging the gaps that divide. Otherwise, our (mistaken) perspectives may do more harm than good.

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