Is THAT What Really Happened? The Difference between Perception and Fact


A common misunderstanding in the world of workplace respect (held by leaders and team members alike) is that our perception of what happened is, in fact, what happened. Our view of “the event” is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This misunderstanding has led many workplaces into the unfortunate abyss of biased investigations, ruined relationships and broken teams.

Perception and fact are two different concepts.

My perception of what took place often is a combination of what I directly observed and the story I have attached to those observations, based on my personal history, beliefs and assumptions – both about the world around me generally and the specific person involved.

For example, I may be speaking to someone who, mid-conversation, looks at his/her watch and sighs. Based on this, I might conclude that he/she is disagreeable, impatient, insubordinate or simply disinterested in what I have to say. As a result of this, I might become angry, defensive or hurt and may lash out at, gossip about or avoid further exchanges with that person (all of which are disrespectful in their own right).

My conclusions about and reaction towards this person are based, not only on his/her behaviour but also on my assumptions about that behaviour. My assumptions may be rooted in similar prior experiences with this individual or others. Perhaps I had another employee, boss – or family member – who repeatedly looked at his/her watch and sighed as an indirect way to end our discussion. Perhaps I have looked at my watch and sighed when I have wanted to end previous discussions.

The details surrounding the history are not important – what is important is the knowledge that there is something in my past which has caused me to make assumptions about the present.

The only “facts” in this case (assuming of course that the exchange took place at all) are that this person looked at his/her watch and sighed. My judgments about this person being disagreeable, impatient, insubordinate or otherwise are mine to own.

This person could have been late for a meeting, overwhelmed with work responsibilities or awaiting a call about test results from his/her physician. There are many possible stories to attach to the behaviour, not simply the one that has triggered my hurt/angry reaction.

True respect asks each of us – leaders and team members alike – to accept responsibility for our piece of the dysfunctional pie. While we need to hold others responsible for their disrespectful behaviour towards us, we need to “reality check” the meaning we attach to those behaviours before “jumping to judgments” and reacting hastily or excessively.

In circumstances like this, we need to let the other person know how they “showed up” for us and how we viewed their behaviour, including the “story” we have attached to it. If we need this behaviour to stop, then we can ask for this as well. What we shouldn’t do is read into or overreact about situations like this without first sharing our observations and testing our stories with those involved.

Ask before assuming. Be curious before criticizing. And build a strong team one conversation at a time. Respectful workplace training is an excellent place to start.

Learn more about building a respectful workplace with Marli’s book The MIRROR Method – How to build a productive team by ending workplace dysfunction.


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