Perception is Reality

You’ve probably heard the trite leadership maxim “Perception is Reality.” It often comes as part of a message that you need to do a better job at something or alter your behavior in some way. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably found yourself muttering in frustration, “No… reality is reality,” as you reject responsibility for the fickle and arbitrary opinions of your shipmates. Like the “Message to Garcia” and “You Get What You Inspect,” the phrase “Perception is Reality” is usually frustrating and is often abused, but it contains important truths that are worth examining.

First of all, we should discuss what “Perception is Reality” does not mean. It’s not about playing politics, currying favor with superiors, or kissing ass– anyone trying to lead you down that path is not someone you want to follow. Usually, these ideas just turn out to be rationalizations; force fields that an immature officer will project when his dignity is under assault. If the he can convince himself that the criticism he faces is punishment for refusal to “play the game,” then he can walk away feeling like a defiant, nonconformist hero instead of a weak officer—the problem is with the System, not his performance.

Force-fieldPerception is reality. What it means is that for others, be they your peers, subordinates, or superiors, how they perceive you is reality to them—and how you perceive yourself has nothing to do with it. It means that your behaviors and their results matter infinitely more than your intentions. It means that if you have a reputation—however unjustified—as lazy, reckless, racist, sexist, promiscuous, malcontent, incompetent or any other word for “unfit for leadership,” then you have a serious problem and need to get to the bottom of it.

You are completely capable of being wrong

Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. If you’ve got a negative reputation that you’d like to shake, then there is some underlying behavior which has led to it. Leadership books will tell you that it’s your responsibility to manage your reputation. I disagree slightly; I think that managing reputations is the business of politicians and celebrities. Instead, you should focus on managing your behavior. Fix your behavior, and your reputation will take care of itself.

This will only work if you heed the alarms and recognize when there’s a problem. Seek and destroy rationalizations; acknowledge that you are completely capable of being wrong. If you’re getting negative feedback, then the problem is with you, period, end of story. Good officers instinctively take responsibility—even if you really are a victim of circumstances, it does you no good to believe it.

“We are what we pretend to be… so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
-Kurt Vonnegut


9 thoughts on “Perception is Reality

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  8. This was just thrown at me by hr after I complained about a employee who has consistently cussed me out or was being aggressive with me. When he justified his behavior by saying that he felt that I treated him differently from others, when the reality is that I have to walk around on eggshells because of his fragile emotional state, that he has displayed to others in the work place.

    My response was no “reality is reality” and that I am not responsible for how someone processes the world. To me this part of why our country is in the mess that we are in, a great lack of personal responsibility and a lot of blaming others for your condition.

    • I have to react with, “perception is perception, and reality is reality.”

      Our job is to win, in absolute, objective terms, to accomplish the mission and dominate the field. In the course of doing so, you may have to manage the perceptions of people who would otherwise obstruct, but you cannot win in absolute terms if you’re willing to let everyone take a departure from reality.

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