The following article was prepared by Mike Taylor, C.P.M., for distribution to ISM affiliate newsletters.


Perception?

January 2005

Remember the old joke about two backpackers. One was wearing tennis shoes as they hiked in the forest. When asked why he was wearing tennis shoes, the answer was, "In case we meet a grizzly." The second backpacker derided him, "You fool, you can't outrun a grizzly." To which the first backpacker replied, "I don't have to outrun the grizzly. I just need to outrun you." 

Cute, isn't it? Too bad that many employees don't realize the same competitive principle applies to their job.

A company hires, keeps, promotes and rewards people based on their value to the company. People compete with each other and job applicants all through their career. Either overtly or indirectly, companies rank personnel resources. It may be through a formal appraisal process or a less formal management consensus process.

If you haven't been through a formal appraisal process, I highly recommend it. Filling in the blanks about communication skills, technical skills, interpersonal relations and other key attributes can be daunting. In the end, it forces a valuable process of self reflection. However, appraisals often don't capture how we are perceived by others.

Now try it from a management perspective. Evaluate a few of your coworkers or friends. Hold it, don't forget that everyone can't  be equal. In order for someone to have better communication skills, someone else has to have comparatively worse communication skills. Remember that part of a manger's purpose in doing the evaluation is to decide who deserves a raise or who will show up on the cut list. Can the manager really articulate a precise difference or will perceptions creep into the evaluation?

Look around your work group and put the group in order, best to worst. Okay, ranking in the middle isn't too relevant, but who are the top two? More importantly, who did you rank at the bottom? It's hard to do! Can you realistically put yourself at the top and/or can you realistically keep yourself off the bottom of the list? Not fair to force a ranking? Wrong answer grasshopper!  

Ranking, sorting, grading, evaluating, critiquing, coaching, encouraging, training, helping and motivating employees is the most important part of a managers job. Employees should be able to run the company without the boss, but the company will fail unless it can select, train and keep employees who are better than the competition. That means companies must also cut employees who are more trouble than they are worth. 

Even if there is a formal evaluation process, managers also have to informally consider how employees fit into the organization. The perceptions of other managers, coworkers and customers can make a big difference. I might have Henry Kissinger on our sales team. But if our customers think Henry is too slow to make an effective contribution, Henry is going to have a hard time competing for raises and keeping his job. Sometimes perceptions by the company president, even if they are inaccurate, can haunt you for years. When a manager has to cut staff, if the company president thinks I'm a dullard, I'd better start polishing my resume.

Let's try the ranking exercise again. This time look around at coworkers or friends and try to rank them, and yourself, based on the perceptions that others in the organization might have. Separate the rankings into two categories; skills vs. perceptions. Can someone who has great skills be perceived to have organizational problems and end up on the top of one list and bottom of the other? Henry has great diplomatic skills, but he is perceived to be slow, bombastic, pompous, turgid and not a good team player. If so, how valuable is Henry to the organization, really?

Now let's ask a key question. Ignoring my technical skills; "How do others in the company perceive me?" Am I perceived as a valuable contributor or a boat anchor? Try these questions on for size:

  • Am I a team player?
  • Am I reliably on time and available when something is needed?
  • Am I absent at critical times or frequently absent (for whatever reason)?
  • Can I be counted on to look and act professionally?
  • Can the boss depend on delegated work getting done right without having to follow-up?
  • Am I supportive to the people who need assistance?
  • Do our customers like interfacing with me?
  • Do other managers and staff see and  hear how I contribute?
  • Am I proactive and independent or reactive and dependant?
  • Am I perceived as spending more time chatting with other people than doing work?
  • Can I positively represent the company image at community events?
  • Do I appear to be more concerned with having fun in the office than getting work done?
  • Do I seem to have a lot of extra time on my hands?
  • Do I appear to abuse privileges such as casual Friday or flexible schedules?
  • Do I seem to use company policy as an excuse to not get the job done?
  • Does the boss feel comfortable delegating responsibilities to me that are outside my normal work scope?
  • Am I perceived to be interminably negative?
  • Am I constantly a grump that everyone is afraid to talk to? [my own personal weakness- at least the boss thinks so]

And the list goes on. As an interesting exercise, try brainstorming more items for the perception list with some friends. I'll bet you recognize some negative perceptions about a  coworker. If you have that opinion, it's a bet that managers, customers and the boss may have the same thoughts. I wonder if your coworker realizes how much the negative perception could be career limiting? 

So now what perceptions do you think the rest of the company has about you?  Are you comfortable with the way you are perceived, or is it time to consider making a few improvements?

Remember you don't have to be the best, but you absolutely have to be better than the competition. Perception is just like the backpacker's tennis shoes helping you avoid the grizzly of layoffs and cutbacks.

Mt


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