Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Recognizing The Perception Gaps In Your Leadership

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.”

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  1. On May 29th, 2012 at 1:09 PM Mahmood said:

    Interesting article; considering the gaps is very important.

  2. On May 30th, 2012 at 8:44 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Mahmood; glad you enjoyed it.

  3. On May 29th, 2012 at 6:02 PM peeledonion said:

    Good thoughts. Especially relevant In matrix organizations where gaps are everywhere by essence. Understanding our own assumptions and those of our team helps asking the right questions and a little bit of cross-functional hopping comes handy.
    Happy those who can jump about the silos

  4. On May 30th, 2012 at 8:46 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Exactly, and this will also give rise to opportunities to discover what your employees really need in terms of support or even motivation to keep pressing ahead.

  5. On May 29th, 2012 at 7:03 PM Jon Mertz said:

    Insightful! In today's information-intensive world, it is easy to jump to perceptions on what we think we heard or are hearing. Taking a step back and actively listening are critical skills that need to be used more often, especially if we want to get the real perspective of the person talking. Thanks!

  6. On May 30th, 2012 at 8:50 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jon; certainly with the escalating amount of information we now have at our disposal, it can certainly become easier to think we have the whole picture.

    However, I think what we're beginning to appreciate now is that data in and of itself has no real value; it's really the context within which it's viewed that we can glean new insights from this information. And as you point out, what better way is there to appreciate that context than by actively listening to those you lead.

    Thanks again for adding to the discussion, Jon.

  7. On June 2nd, 2012 at 5:17 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Your point about leaders asking more questions resonated for me. Questions = listening, but Tanveer have you ever noticed in your one to one encounters how few questions people tend to ask.

    Jon: I like your thought of taking a step back, but we also have to step away from the World of Big Data. There is no need to know it all. We are not wired to know it all. The World of Big Data is making everyone insecure to know it all. We need to be more select and trust our instincts more, that is why I like your thought of active listening.

  8. On June 4th, 2012 at 12:11 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Jim,

    Yes, I have noticed that the art of asking questions is becoming less practiced in one-to-one conversations. I have found, though, that taking the initiative in asking others questions spurs them on to ask some of their own.

    Granted, at first, it might be as a conversational courtesy. However, it does to crack the door open for people to question whether they really understand the message/ideas being relayed to them.

    At that point, it becomes easier to question your assumptions instead of letting your brain fill in those gaps so you can deal with other issues.

  9. On June 5th, 2012 at 7:11 AM Nacie Carson said:

    Absolutely – leaders need to learn how to ask more questions. But in most cases, they retreat to a position of authoritarianism and as *less* questions when times change or things evolve. Great reminder, Tanveer!

  10. On June 5th, 2012 at 11:57 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Nacie; glad you enjoyed it.

  11. On June 5th, 2012 at 5:16 PM @TheMngmtCoach said:

    Tanveer, this is my first time to your blog and I love how articulate you are. Asking open questions, paraphrasing, building on ideas, and simply not interrupting one another are powerful listening techniques that enhance the flow of information. As Drucker wrote: “Most books on decision-making tell the reader: ‘First find the facts.’ But executives who make effective decisions know that one does not start with facts. One starts with opinions.”

    One cannot limit active listening to asking questions. Silence, and taking the time to ponder or to paraphrase back to someone are powerful ways of processing information so that true listening occurs.

  12. On June 5th, 2012 at 9:17 PM Ellen Weber said:

    Great blog Tanveer, and exchange all. You build a great case for what it means to flourish as opposed to merely "learn" in traditional or memory related modes.

    You'd likely be interested in the meaning of "understand," since it means to "Stand under." This blog typifies the joy of "standing under the delights of new ideas such as those articulated and discussed so well here.

    Lots to think about here! Ellen

  13. On June 7th, 2012 at 8:39 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Ellen,

    Thank you so much for the kind words; appreciate it. Thanks also for sharing the meaning behind the word "understand". Love it.

    Appreciate your taking the time, Ellen, to comment on this piece; had a feeling you'd enjoy it.

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