When it comes to workplace and team dynamics, most of us like to think that we have a pretty good understanding of the interpersonal relationships around us and how those interactions impact our perceptions, communications, and even decisions. And yet, what we perceive and what’s really there are not always the same, with the real challenge being that we’re not always aware of this difference.
Consider, for example, this image below –
Looking at this image what most of us will notice is the white square in the middle. However, the reality is that there is no square in the center of this diagram. The image is called a Kanizsa Square and it’s an example of an optical illusion called subjective contours, where our brain perceives there to be a contour within these four Pac Man-like shapes despite the lack of any clear lines or colour delineations that would define this white square.
It’s how our brain works in taking the various fragments of information we see, read and hear and connects them to create a complete picture. While most times, the representation of what’s going on around us is correct, sometimes – like in the case of the Kanizsa Square illusion – our brains tend to fill in the gaps to create something that’s not quite reflective of what’s really there.
While this neurological mechanism can help create some interesting visual tricks, it also reveals the inherent problem we all face – of allowing our brains to fill in the gaps found between the bits of information we have in order to create our understanding or perception about a person or a situation.
It’s another reason why listening to our employees has become such a crucial skill for today’s leaders. By being attentive to what our employees are telling us, leaders can ensure that they’re not filling in these gaps with their own assumptions, but are instead gathering insights from those around them in order to gain a more complete and accurate picture.
It’s also why in this information-driven economy, the ability to foster and develop collaborations across divisions and departments is becoming so critical to long-term success as the differentiator is no longer simply what we know, but whether we’re allowing ourselves to believe that we do know all that we need to proceed with our efforts.
Of course, the point is not to think that we’re incapable of properly perceiving or understanding a situation. Rather, it’s to gain a greater awareness and sense of clarity for how our biases and beliefs can distort what we see.
Consequently, it becomes more understandable why leaders need to ask more questions and encourage more open feedback from those they lead in order to ensure the decisions and choices they make for their team and organization are based on what’s really going on and not on what their mind perceives there to be.
It should also be noted that we all are susceptible to having these gaps in our perception filled in by our minds in order to help make sense or provide some kind of context for what we’re perceiving. Even the best leaders have experienced – and will continue to experience – moments where a discrepancy arises between what they perceive and what those they lead experience.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we can cut ourselves some slack when we fail to understand the issues or concerns our employees bring to our attention. Rather, this should serve as a reminder for all leaders to be mindful about whether they truly understand the nuances of a particular situation or relationship dynamic, or whether their minds are simply trying to find the quickest solution to resolve the gaps in their awareness.
As we continue to press forward into a world where information is not only freely available and shared, but where it’s becoming a serious challenge to filter and sort through the growing rivers of information at our disposal, it’s easy to think that such issues of gaps in our leadership perception will become less critical.
Unfortunately, this rising tide of information paired with a growing sense of urgency to get things done faster will only push our minds to fill in these perception gaps in order to create some form of order within this information chaos.
In this light, today’s leaders need to be mindful of how much of their understanding of the challenges their employees face is based on what’s really going on and how much of it is based on what their minds have created. As Lao Tzu wrote:
To realize that you do not understand is a virtue; not to realize that you do not understand is a defect.”