If you’ve ever watched a news report where multiple witnesses are interviewed, you know that although people can experience the same event, individual interpretations and reflections surrounding what took place can vary widely. This also occurs in the workplace as well in what is referred to as “perception gaps,” where the perception gap definition used here relates to the differences in perceptions between leaders, managers, and employees surrounding issues such as the state of workplace satisfaction and culture. This type of discrepancy can lead to issues as we look to create collective agreement around company and team objectives.
Identifying and recognizing these perception gaps can be difficult as it’s not a matter of right or wrong; in fact, it can be the case that all parties are right as individuals reconcile their team experiences with their personal worldview. This worldview can be shaped by a variety of things such as cultural differences, background, perspective, and generational disparities to name a few. Regardless of the reason, team performance is affected when we fail to bridge the gaps that exist between team leaders and members, making it more difficult to develop high-performing teams.
Closing a Perception Gap
To create common ground and bridge organizational perception gaps within our teams, leaders need to be mindful to not discount diversity of experiences in an effort to conform. Closing perception gaps is not about conforming, it’s about recognizing the individuality of team members and creating an environment with collective buy-in and understanding, which then allows each individual to interact with the knowledge and understanding of one another’s needs in the pursuit of clearly defined goals.
So, what happens to our teams when team leaders and members have different starting points?
Perception Gaps Influence Team Outcomes
Dale Carnegie recently conducted a survey of more than 2,600 employees across 15 countries to examine key influences to teamwork and what sets high-performing teams apart from others.
Included in the study were various aspects of team satisfaction and team culture. Analysis of the data is clear, relating to their teams, team leaders have a significantly more positive perception of the level of team satisfaction present as well as having a more favorable perception of the existing team culture than that of its members. Considering the impact that leaders have on their teams, this perception gap that exists between leaders and members surrounding key team aspects is crucial to address as, at the very least, it reflects parties beginning from very different perspectives and will affect how members engage; ultimately impacting productivity and outcomes.
For example, when considering access to training and development and whether it was part of their team culture, there was a 34% difference in favorable responses between team leaders and members.
What does this mean? While the majority of team leaders (79%) felt that access to learning opportunities were very good or excellent, less than half of individual contributors (45%) felt that way.
These disparities are also not unique to specific levels within our organizations either. In fact, those who have spent time researching and analyzing organizations may recognize this as a pattern across all levels. As an example, a recent study spoke to perception gaps existing between HR leaders and employees where 85% of employees felt they understood their role within the company and its direction; HR leaders felt that this number was much lower at only 61%.
But why is perception important? If our team members perceive their role or current situation as being one thing, but leadership believes it to be another and there are minimal or ineffective efforts to create alignment, we create situations where our members are moving in several different directions. This doesn’t mean that people are deliberately working against your team objectives, but rather are pursuing a goal the way they understand it or perceive it to be, which may be several different things.
Without Alignment, Our Teams Can Fall Into An “Us vs Them” Mentality
When team leaders fail create a collective understanding at the start, outcomes can suffer as there may be opposing priorities among members, and trust or respect between members and leaders can be lost. In this instance, at the basic level there is not alignment, which can lead to an “us vs. them” mentality within our teams. Instead of a cohesive team working toward a collective goal, we then promote the creation of silos which then become hurdles our teams need to overcome in pursuit of high performance.
The creation of silos can be crippling as within that environment, the benefits of interpersonal interactions cannot be fully realized as there is built-in separation. This is alarming as high-performing teams are significantly impacted by the quality and nature of team leadership, and with large perception gaps surrounding the reality of experiences within our teams, leadership may be less likely to focus on the necessary soft skills that support high-performance. Essentially, as a team leader, you become a barrier to success!
Why closing perception gaps and increasing alignment is important?
The importance of perception in the workplace cannot be understated, as it directly influences organizational culture, employee relationships, and overall success. The first thing that leaders at any level can do is to recognize that we all approach every situation informed by our unique experiences. Reminding ourselves that others bring their own experiences to any engagement will caution against blanket assumptions or engaging with the mindset that everyone sees things the same way you do. Leaders should look for growth opportunities and improvement at all levels within our companies and understand that, as leaders, our point of view is only one amongst many.
Team leaders should work to ensure they clearly understand their team members; meeting them where they are, not where we expect them to be. This in itself calls for proactive engagement and interaction in areas that help to understand the employee perspective.
Closing perception gaps requires a greater understanding of one another which is something that cannot happen in a culture of disconnect. Our recent Dale Carnegie study found a significant impact on team outcomes when primary team leaders performed better in areas of interpersonal connectedness.
In each of the instances below, the numbers reflect the percentage of respondents on high-performing teams who rated their team leader as performing excellent or very well in these areas, contributing to the team exceeding their goals. For high-performing teams (i.e. those who exceeded their goals):
- 77% of team leaders built and established a level of trust;
- 78% of team leaders recognized individual contributions; and
- 72% of team leaders cared about team members on the human level.
These numbers would be very difficult to achieve with large disconnects present between team leaders and members. As a comparison, the corresponding percentage range for teams who either just met or failed to meet their goals on the same items ranged from 40-60%; significantly lower demonstrating that leadership effectiveness along these items impacted team outcomes.
Working Toward High-Performing Teams
Perception in the workplace is always an important topic to discuss as it can lead to culture gaps and disconnects within our companies. Narrowing perception gaps in the workplace is not only crucial for fostering a harmonious and collaborative environment but also essential for the long-term success of any organization. By acknowledging the diversity of experiences and perspectives within the workforce and actively working to understand how to bridge the gap between management and employees, team leaders and team members, businesses can create an inclusive workplace where employees thrive, innovation flourishes, and everyone feels valued and respected in support of high-performing teams.
Robert A. Coleman, Ph.D., is the director of research and thought leadership for Dale Carnegie and Associates, where he is responsible for ongoing research into current issues facing leaders, employees, and organizations worldwide. Visit dalecarnegie.com for more information on a variety of workplace topics and resources to help your organization.