Perception is Reality



The great late poet Maya Angelou suggested that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

And yet we are still expected to lead people without really knowing what to do about feelings.

Some think we shouldn’t factor them into workplace decision making; others think it’s what matters the most. Many refrain from even thinking about feelings at all.

Behind every hurt feeling is a hidden fear. Anyone who has ever worked with me as a coach or consultant knows that I am consistent in my pursuit to help each person find their fears and move through them in order to achieve their aspirations.

After all, one courageous and compassionate leader has the power to instigate a positive shift in the corporate culture.

As simple as this may sound, it isn’t easy for a leader, especially when faced with what is perceived as a high risk situation. There are layers of memory to move through – some obvious, others not so much. Often within these memory banks are some buried traumas that guilefully wreak havoc on a person’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors.

Alas, it’s a process.

In my last article, I cited a list of common fears that I see in the workplace and how they play out in unconscious, oftentimes destructive behaviors. Let’s dive a little deeper into the emotional waters where some fears originate . . . past trauma.

A trauma is defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” We often associate the word trauma with tragedy. While that is a justifiable association, some traumas are less obvious. Sometimes an experience that is deeply distressing to one may be considered completely insignificant to another.

From my observations, the difference between one person having a traumatic reaction to an experience and another person having the opposite reaction to the same experience is the belief system and/or memories within each of their individual brains.

For example, let’s imagine a young professional female who has an older male supervisor. Let’s say the supervisor uses the words, “sweetie” or “young lady” when he asks her to do something. It annoys her, but she says nothing.

By the end of the year, they both attend a large gala that their company is sponsoring. Her supervisor, in an attempt to compliment her, says something that she perceives as derogatory. Maybe he says, “Wow!” upon seeing her walk in. Or maybe he takes it one step further, awkwardly trying to be hip with “Wow, you look hot!”

Now let’s imagine another female professional who also reports to the same male supervisor. She, too, is greeted with a comment from him at the gala, which sounds something like, “Damn, you’re looking good!”

The younger professional is deeply disturbed by her supervisors’ comments, considering them to be misogynistic and harassing. The other female professional, however, finds his comments to be genuinely complimentary.

Why would one find the experience traumatic, while the other felt admired? In this fictitious example, the younger professional’s entire adult life has been exposed to multiple sources purporting the evils of sexual harassment and misogyny. This has conditioned her to perceive and believe that these words and behaviors are steeped in malicious intent and is convinced that she is being objectified.

Further, she believes that if she speaks up, it could jeopardize her job, her reputation and her career path altogether. Perhaps she has a friend who actually lost her job from a similar experience.

Since it is early in her career, she is traumatized by these situations with her supervisor. She feels powerless to speak up, set her boundaries and change the dynamic. As a result, over time, she begins to feel disempowered, losing her confidence and her voice. Furthermore, the voices in her head start to torment her, questioning whether or not she has any real value in her role at this company.

The other female professional, however, wasn’t raised in an era where misogyny as a word had ever been used. Sexual harassment in her generation was synonymous with sexual assault, as she perceived it. As a result, unless he was overtly pressuring her into a sexual relationship, she wouldn’t think a thing of her supervisor’s comments. In fact, she was truly charmed by what she perceived to be respectful with no sexual innuendo whatsoever.

Not only did she not feel objectified, she was still trying to more fully understand the concept and related it back to an earlier time when she was passed over for a promotion by someone she perceived to be more physically attractive. She secretly believed the woman had “slept her way up the ladder.” She figured that woman had been objectified and she didn’t want any part of that, so she never considered the possibility that she would be objectified.

On the Monday following the gala, someone from HR meets with the male supervisor regarding his behavior. He is shocked and feels blindsided. He had no conscious awareness that he had used any derogatory language and was mortified at the thought of being perceived that way. Upon reflection, he did realize that the young female professional reminded him of his niece that he thinks of fondly.

He was raised by a chivalrous father who taught him that to honor women, he should always make an effort to compliment them. In other words, his motives were pure even if his behavior was considered inappropriate by today’s standards.

From this one relationship between the young female professional and the older male supervisor, we have two traumas. Over the course of his very long career, he had never been reported to HR, and now he feels like in one instance, his whole reputation was ruined. Likewise, she was starting her career feeling completely threatened.

The feelings of all of these professionals are valid. A person’s feelings are valid simply because they are real. Their feelings are real because of what they perceive to be happening. Nevertheless, their perception isn’t necessarily the truth.

When one person is experiencing feelings that we don’t understand, it is an opportunity for us to exercise empathy and courage.

In a world that tends to celebrate thoughts more readily than feelings, it is crucial that we learn how to do both – even when we don’t agree or understand. This is the gateway to trust and respect, two key elements in creating strong relationships and culture.

This is a fictitious story, but symbolic of my professional experiences. I have been called into many situations over the last 20 years to help resolve conflict. Nearly 100% of the time I find that the root of the problem is poor communication, not malicious intent. If someone truly has intentions to do harm – and some certainly do – they tend to be weeded out before I’m ever called in because their poor behavior is consistently destructive toward multiple parties.

As a culture consultant and leadership coach, my job isn’t to judge human behaviors. It is my responsibility to investigate and understand the intentions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of all involved parties and to create resolutions. From there, we build new understanding, agreements and action plans, together – through the exercise of empathy and courage.

It takes empathy to step outside of our own perspectives to relate to those of others – especially those who we believe have hurt us. It takes courage to let go of judgments toward those individuals, especially when judging them gives us a (false) sense of safety and superiority.

When both parties practice both, the once strained dynamic between them is strengthened. These restored relationships are the building blocks for strong cultures of trust and a healing process for the inadvertent trauma the situation created.

This does not at all let anyone off the hook who is overtly harassing and disrespectful. What I’m trying to convey here is that in the majority of cases that I’ve helped to rehabilitate, ignorance and poor conditioning are more prevalent than true perniciousness.

Trauma can cause us to think and do a lot of things we wouldn’t otherwise think or do. It can be created accidentally and then create more trauma for others accidentally.

That in and of itself is cause to pause. Our feelings are indicators. They may not be truth tellers, but they play a crucial role in the health and wellbeing of humans, relationships and whole cultures.

Feelings must be honored, not accommodated. There is a huge difference between the two, and one of my favorite parts about my career is training others how to strike this balance effectively.

So let’s all dive a little deeper within ourselves to understand our perceptions, our pain and our judgment. It is in that deep dive where we find our best selves, which the world very clearly needs.

Yep, you got this. And when you don’t, I’m right here to guide you.