As we have discussed so far in this chapter, many things impact our human relations with others. Perception is no different. PerceptionThe recognition and interpretation of sensory stimuli based upon our memory. is the recognition and interpretation of sensory stimuli based upon our memory. In other words, it is the way you interpret data around you. The data could come from sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. For example, if you wake up in the morning to the smell of coffee, your perception is likely correct that your roommate is already awake. The challenge with perception in human relations is that we may not always understand someone else’s perception and/or assume their perception is our own. This is where disagreements and other communication issues can occur. For example, if you perceive that your significant other is too focused on spending time with friends, your interactions with her will be based upon this perception. For example, you could be frustrated and short tempered. In a workplace setting, perceptions can also cause miscommunications. For example, you may perceive your coworker to be lazy because he always arrives to work at 8:15 a.m. and the start time is 8 a.m. Suppose he has a child with a medical condition who needs special schooling, and the school doesn’t open until 8 a.m.? Perhaps he has made arrangements with your supervisor of which you are unaware. This perception can be a dangerous one, since we don’t have all of the facts.
How many legs does this elephant have? This section on perception is going to address the many ways we perceive things—and how these perceptions impact our ability to relate to others.
Researcher and professor Dan Simons provides a short video that looks at our own perceptions.
We have defined perception and given some example to show how perceptions can be incorrect—negatively impacting relationships. But where do our perceptions come from? There are a number of things that influence our perception.Rita Baltus, Personal Psychology for Life and Work (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000), 27–29. First, our heredity can be major influencers of our perception. Height, skin color, and gender influence the way we see the world. For example, someone who is 5’ 2” may perceive an object to be stored too high, while someone who is 6’ 2” may not have that same perception.
Our needs impact our perception as well. Physiological needs, such as food and water (or lack thereof), can influence how we feel about certain situations. Have you ever been in a social situation where you were very hungry? If so, you know this impacted your ability to socialize with other people. You may have found yourself less patient to listen because you were concerned about when you were going to eat! Or if you have ever taken a road trip and needed to use the restroom, your perception may be that the highway lacks a sufficient number of rest areas.
Our peer group can also impact our perception. Our peers tend to determine what is desirable or undesirable, thereby giving us information on how to interpret data around us. You have experienced this personally, no doubt. If you perceive a brand of clothing desirable, it is more likely your friends also feel similar. The same thing happens at work; for example, suppose a supervisor uses Skype to conduct meetings because her perception is that it is an efficient way to do business. It is highly likely that others in your workgroup will perceive it as a useful tool, also.
Our interests impact our perception. If you like running marathons, your perception on how much to spend on running shoes will be different from someone who prefers kayaking for fun and needs a pair of athletic shoes. Assume your interest at work is to be promoted. Your perception of work is very different than someone who can’t stand the job and is looking for a position with a different company.
Our expectations are another driver of our perceptions. For example, research performed by Ronald MelzackRonald Melzack et al., “Central Neuropasticy and Pathological Pain,” Annals New York Academy of Sciences 933 (2001): 157–59. suggests our expectations about how much something will hurt alters our perception after the fact. For example, if you are dreading getting a flu shot because you believe it will hurt a lot (expectations), once you actually have it done, you may say, “That didn’t hurt at all” (perception), because your expectation prepared you beforehand. In other words, our expectations affect our perception after the fact. In this example, our expectation was extreme pain, but when that didn’t occur, our perception was quite the opposite. Our expectations and resulting perception can also be looked at in a work setting. For example, if you have high expectations that your workgroup will win the annual chili cook-off at your company picnic, but you don’t win, your perception could be one of unfairness: “The judges like the marketing department better.” Likewise, if your team wins the chili cook-off and you expected to win, your perceptions may be, “Of course we won, we knew ours was the best.”
A halo effectAssumes that if a person has one trait we like, that all traits must be desirable. or reverse halo effectIf we find an undesirable trait in someone, we assume all traits are undesirable. can also alter our perceptions. The halo affect assumes that if a person has one trait we like, that all traits must be desirable. The reverse halo effect is if we find an undesirable trait in someone, we assume all traits are undesirable. Assume you don’t like the way your coworker, Mariette, speaks. You may then make an assumption that all of Mariette’s traits are negative. Likewise, if you believe Rhonda is a great dental hygienist, you may promote her to manage the other dental hygienists. Later, if the other hygienists complain about her management style, you may realize you promoted her because you thought her skill as a dental hygienist meant she also had good management skills. In this case, the halo effect occurred.
Awareness of our own perceptions and what drives those perceptions is a key component to being successful at work. If we know why we believe something to be good, right, fair, negative, or unfair based on our perceptions, we can begin to let go of some of our misperceptions. As a result, developing good relationships at work, respect, and mutual understanding can create a better workplace.
The classic optical illusion that shows our perceptions can be very different from other’s perceptions. Do you see an old woman or a young woman in this picture?