The Perils of Perception


I was flying through the air. Unlike the common experiences of flying, this did not involve an airplane. Rather, I was practicing jujitsu and my partner had just executed a very well-timed throw. As I went over, I suddenly realized that my partner had turned the wrong way and was throwing me off the mat and onto the concrete floor.

Needless to say, the landing was painful. I started to say something to my partner when I suddenly realized that I was still on the mat. While I thought my partner was throwing me onto concrete, he was, in fact, throwing me exactly where he was supposed to: onto a nice, soft mat. Believing that I was about to land on concrete, however, was enough to cause me to take a hard fall.

Perception, in other words, is reality.

Now, it is easy to argue that maybe the expectation of falling on concrete was enough to make me tense up and hence take a bad fall. On a separate occasion, I really was thrown off the mat and onto the concrete floor. I didn’t realize it was happening and fully expected to land on a soft mat. Far from being a painful shock, the landing was completely comfortable, exactly how I’m used to feeling when I hit the mat. It wasn’t until I stood up that I realized that I wasn’t where I expected to be.

Perception is, once again, reality.

A certain company was experiencing explosive growth. Their hot new product enabled them to dominate the niche they had created. As their product became more and more successful, the senior management team became more and more concerned about the future. They focused on the consequences of failure and the decisions they made were based on protecting their turf, not continuing to innovate and expand. Despite their successes, they viewed themselves as fighting a doomed battle against encroaching competitors. Over time, just as they envisioned, their competitors chipped away at their market share and they saw their revenue decline.

Perception can become reality.

The company was seriously stuck. They knew they had a good product, but they couldn’t get any traction. Engineering teams were spending all their time arguing over minute details; everyone was so afraid of making a mistake that making a commitment to any course of action was seen as high risk behavior. Even when they did make a commitment they made almost no progress: every decision had to be reevaluated and rejustified at every meeting.

Rather than focusing on what could go wrong, the management team had to learn to focus on what could go right. Rather than viewing every decision in terms of avoiding failure, they had to plan for success. The only way to never fall off a bicycle is to never get on one in the first place. If you want to ride, though, you have to risk falling over. This company needed to stop being afraid of falling off the bike and simply start pedaling. They needed to perceive success around the corner.

As management started to change their attitudes, the rest of the company followed. We always assume that the person highest up the ladder can see the furthest. In this case, once the people at the top started perceiving success, everyone else could perceive it too.

The company regained its dominant position. Were their mistakes along the way? Of course there were. At one time, those mistakes would have led to heads rolling and projects being canceled. Even worse, the mistakes would have led to interminable meetings arguing over the causes and making elaborate plans to avoid any possibility of failure in the future. However, with the new mindset that success was inevitable, mistakes were merely feedback, opportunities to collect information and adjust strategies.

Change perception and you change reality.

What you perceive determines how you act. This isn’t some sort of magic, it is simple psychology. Teach people to perceive success at the end of the journey and they perceive the opportunities to get them there. Teach people to perceive failure and they avoid anything that might be risky, including the opportunities to succeed.

Hard landing or soft landing, it’s up to you. What are you doing to make sure your team perceives success?