Perception IS Reality

As a good leader, it’s important to get out there amongst your people (1-2 levels under your direct reports) to not only find out what’s going on, but more importantly, to find out what THEY THINK is going on!


Often times, people’s perceptions of what’s happening…be that good or bad…are just that – – perceptions!

They may be 100% correct & accurate. They may be totally wrong.

Chances are that they’ll land somewhere in the middle…a few right, a few wrong & a whole lot of gray!

And, of course, in order for everyone to be on the same page, you hafta clear up as many misconceptions as possible!

Look, it’s tough enough to lead a bunch of people effectively (as a group as well as one at a time) when you’re battling all the ACTUAL issues & problems that pop up along the way.

No doubt ‘bout that whatsoever.

But when you have all these “real things” that’ll get it your way to fight, the challenge of being a great leader is multiplied by the existence of people’s perceived issues!

Especially when you’re not aware of them.

Lemme better explain what I’m trying to say here.

You & your direct reports sit down and write up a complete list of every possible “issue, problem, threat & challenge” that you guys believe exist in the organization. (Note: By NO means am I saying that the organization itself has caused these problems…I’m just saying that you guys believe they somehow exist in your environment.)

I guarantee that if you go down 1 or 2 levels and ask THOSE people to compile a list of EVERY issue, problem, threat & challenge that THEY believe exist, I will guarantee you that the lists will not agree.

Quite possibly, not even remotely.

And while “your” list may contain some items that are not on “their” list (and that’s OK), the most IMPORTANT, yet dangerous, aspect of this is that THEIR list will, indeed, contain some stuff that aren’t on your list.

(Note: Pls make the necessary adjustments if there are no other people “below” your direct reports. It’ll then be “your own list” & “their list”.)

If you’re dead serious about effectively leading the best organization possible, then you must be obsessed with pleasing 3 different groups of people…

1. Your COMPANY (your bosses, the stockholders, Board of Directors). You must demonstrate to them…with measurable, defined, tangible performance results…that you’re doing a great job. Your production/productivity, your timeliness, your error/rework rate, your overall financial performance, your sales, etc..

2. Your CUSTOMERS (both external & internal). You must “show proof” of the job you’re doing…measured customer satisfaction, repeat sales, retention, complaints, feedback, performance vs. competitors, market share, etc..

3. Your PEOPLE (everyone from your direct reports on down). Again, demonstrate the type of job you’re doing through measured/formal employee satisfaction, informal feedback, retention, absenteeism, advancement, etc..

Well, if you & your direct reports believe that A, B, C, D, E, F & G are problems/issues/challenges facing your organization, but your people think that A, B, D, F, G, H, I, J & K exist, guess what?

There’s a partial disconnect.

It’s actually wonderful that you guys believe that C & E are things you must work on, even though they weren’t cited by your people.

That’s actually a good thing.

You’re looking beyond the obvious toward the people’s true needs…even if they’re unspoken by the people themselves.

It’s very similar to what you want your people to do with/for your customers. Look beyond what’s being said. Probe & determine the customer’s TRUE needs & wants.

But when your people BELIEVE that H, I, J & K are issues, BUT YOU & YOUR DIRECTS HAVEN’T IDENTIFIED THEM AS SUCH, then you really have a problem.

A disconnect.

But I’ll tell you this…I’ll bet you that all of them (H, I, J, K) are NOT “real” issues.

More likely than not, some (most? all?) of them are “perceived” issues.

In reality, they are not real-world problems.

It could be due to lack of understanding, inadequate communications, need for improved training, employee indifference & a host of other reasons as to why people THINK these are problems, but you don’t agree.

Now, it could very well be that there ARE, indeed, issues, but you just didn’t think of them. Fine, add them to your list of things to work on & improve.

But when the people think or believe them to be problems, and you know that they’re really not, that’s where the real danger lies.

Perception is reality, especially when it comes to an employee’s satisfaction level (as well as a customer’s).

If they believe it’s an issue (whether or not it really is), then it WILL be held “against the organization” when it comes to employee satisfaction, giving one’s best, staying with the organization, speaking well of the company to prospective customers & employees, etc..

And the ONLY WAY that you’re gonna find out about these “perceived, yet possibly untrue, problems” is to GET OUT THERE & SPEAK DIRECTLY WITH YOUR PEOPLE.

You will be shocked at some of the stuff you’ll here!

And while it may not be “your fault” or “their fault”, if they exist in people’s minds, but not in the real world, then they must be addressed…HEAD ON!

I’d always try to have general staff meetings on a regular basis so I could hear directly from the people.

Sometimes, everyone was there (even if multiple meetings were required to cover every employee), but there were other times when I specifically excluded all the managers between me & the people.

I’d then ask the peeps to be completely frank & open with me.

No holds barred.

And they would let loose!

Many of the “issues” dealt with people’s “styles”.

No, not with what they wore, but with the manner in which they treated or spoke with people…with how people in other departments/organizations were helpful to us (or troublesome)…how to handle certain customers who “simply wouldn’t listen”…and on & on.

But style is, very often, quite subjective. Speaking strongly & being nasty are, without a doubt, in the eye of the beholder. But it’s ALWAYS necessary for each side to understand the other person’s perspective. I’d address the “issue” & provide the appropriate feedback, in private, to one or both parties.

Sometimes, when someone (especially in other areas) is being perceived as “not helpful or being troublesome”, it’s because that they’re NOT ALLOWED to provide certain information or handle a specific request in the manner we want (due to gov’t regulations or company/dept policies & procedures). Again, I’d clarify the situation if possible or provide the necessary feedback to the other area’s leadership team.

When it came to the “irate customer”, this one could be difficult, at best, to properly address without hearing the actual call. There were times when I went back to review the call or transaction in question (via taped calls or systems reviews). I’d often ask the employee if they thought that they were 1000% sure that they (the employee) were “right”.

I would come across times when they were not. More often than not, though, it arose from a “lack of understanding” (mostly on the part of the customer, e.g., bounced checks, penalty/overdraft, fees, monthly service charges, rejected applications, denied requests, etc.).

But the employees also often played a huge role in allowing the situation to get “out of control”. There are ways to diffuse the situation & confrontation is certainly not one of them.

1. Remain calm.
2. Don’t take it personally.
3. Use your best listening skills.
4. Actively sympathize.
5. Apologize gracefully.
6. Find a solution.
7. Take a few minutes on your own.

There are several training classes, programs & methodologies available to help your people with this whole area.

I would add one more item to whatever list exists…make sure you’re right!

I once had a very senior rep argue with a non-customer about cashing one of our customer’s checks.

The rep flat out refused & said it’s impossible & that he would have to deposit it into his own bank account instead.

Not true.

If the branch is able to verify the maker’s signature (the customer who signed the check), either with an actual signature card or via digitized images, and the person has acceptable ID, then it usually can be accommodated. Banks may or may not have certain dollar limits & may actually contact the customer directly for large dollar items or “suspicious circumstances”.

Other “perceived issues” that I’ve addressed involved the company’s involvement with charities & the community (I’d always educate them on the many, many wonderful things we did & would always raise their suggestions to the right people in charge of this stuff)…the employee’s inability to attend college (I taught them about tuition assistance programs & federally-funded program’s & pledged my/the company’s support for flexible scheduling)…personal finances (OT opportunities with our or other areas; taught them about budgeting programs & educated them on 401K, IRAs/Roth IRAs, matching 401K contributions, etc. & pointed them in the right area so they could help themselves learn)…and on & on & on.

A lot of the “issues” they raised were not issues at all!

They didn’t realize the full capabilities of the system or what information was readily available to them.

At Citi, one of the reps’ biggest complaints was the inability to see detailed information on what happened to the account since the close of the previous business day (today’s cash withdrawals & debit card purchases, especially when made by the “other signer”; “holds on available balances” due to cashed checks, returned deposits, etc.; same-day “inclearing checks”; on-line adjustments made by other units; etc.).

I worked very closely with my buddy Bobby Hogan & our Systems partners to develop a special CWS/CitiPhone WorkStation screen that actually provided very-detailed information on same-day transactions: a simple English description, date, actual time, dollar amount, ATM location, which signer’s Citicard was used, the type of store, etc..

When we rolled it out, we distributed training guides to every manager & service rep, met with New Hire Training, updated “Source” (online knowledgeware database used by all employees), over-communicated its release, distributed Daily Bulletins, communicated with our branches, continually stressed its use to managers/reps & did everything under the sun to make sure that everyone knew about it.

About 3-4 months later, as Bobby & I were working on developing enhancements to CWS, we met with different groups of reps & managers to get their initial feedback on some of our ideas & screen designs.

In one particular session, we had 2 “newer reps”, one with 7 months experience & the other one was with us for a year, who came “highly-recommended” by their respective Team Leaders.

Highly recommended. On the phones for 7 & almost 12 months.

Not only didn’t either one of them EVER USE THE NEW CWS SCREEN FOR SAME-DAY TRANSACTIONS, neither one of them even knew about it! In addition, there was a SIGNIFICANT knowledge gap when it came to fully understanding the very basic TJ/Transaction Journal…the listing of ALL posted transactions on an account!

This automatically pops up on every account & had been around for at least 20 years! It’s covered extremely  well in New Hire Training. It’s one of the ABCs of servicing customers…and these two “highly/recommended” reps were not thoroughly versed in it!

We taught, and informed them on, things they claimed to have never been taught or told. (I was pretty doubtful about that claim.)

And then never saw or used, the same-day transactions screen we developed & communicated to them on several occasions.

This was a screen that a rep would use at least several times a day, and probably a helluva lot more on a Monday, considering the fact that all of Friday evening’s, Saturday’s, Sunday’s & Monday’s transactions normally wouldn’t be available to view until Tuesday!

This completely blew my mind in a way it’s never happened before…and I’ve seen some of the craziest stuff on the face of the Earth!

Sometimes, YOUR boss or another senior leader will want to meet directly with the people to “get their direct input on stuff”.

I’m warning you now…DO NOT LET THEM DO THIS ALONE!!!

Yes, I fully understand they want to demonstrate how very “brave”…and connected…they are by meeting with the “common folk” without full-body armor or their royal palace guards.

I get it. I really do. I, too, read it a book somewhere & am constantly preaching it myself.

But the ONLY way they (you) should “allow” that to happen is if they’re accompanied by one or more “extremely-knowledgeable” individuals.

(“What do you mean “allow” them? They’re my boss, or my boss’s boss, or another big-wig!”)

This is a wonderful opportunity for you to practice & hone your “managing up” skills.

Trust me.

I’ve had “it” happen to me on a few occasions…and I wound up having a TON of clean-up to do afterwards!

Here’s one example…

A well-intentioned Senior leader of mine decided to go out into the field & hold a number of small sessions with the reps. They were designed to obtain direct feedback on what issu, er, opportunities for improvement existed.

Just the Sr Leader & the reps. No buffer in between. Honestly, I didn’t know, nor was I told, these were going on.

(BTW, while I was a senior member of the organization, I held a “staff position”, i.e., no people directly to me.)

At the next Senior Director’s meeting, I learned about yesterday’s sessions…a general review of how they went was provided to me & the others.


…I was handed “the list”.

25 “problems” that I needed to fix that were identified by the reps.

And, of course, as soon as possible!!!

😱   😱   😱

I read through the list (incredulously, I might add).


Jeeeez, friggin’ Louise, that alone could represent several YEARS of work for me, not counting the endless hours spent by others @ Citi (Systems, Legal/Compliance, Training, Retail Bank, Finance, etc.)…and not to mention all the markers I would hafta call in for a bunch of reciprocal favors now!

(When you work very closely with other areas during your entire career (it was ~25 years at that point), you develop an exhaustive number of strong inter-personal relationships. And you ALWAYS try your damnedest to be helpful, to go out of your way, to pull strings for people, to do whatever’s needed to assist a person in getting their job done.

One resultant benefit of this is then you can always “go to the well” to seek favors, special consideration, a way through the back door when YOU NEED IT!

Yes, one hand washes the other…and an elephant (🙋🏻‍♂️) has a remarkable memory!)

Anyway, I read the list while the rest of the meeting’s going on.

Of the 25 problems that I was tasked with fixing…

>> 22 were NOT legitimate problems.

It was clear that the reps didn’t understand some existing features of the system (that were clearly covered in New Hire Training,…well-documented in Source (our on-line knowledgeware database)…regularly communicated in Daily Bulletins, etc.)

22 of 25 items – – from the Problem List – – were NOT problems, but rather, were PERCEIVED problems in (some of) the minds of the reps. And, of course, the Senior Leader didn’t have the knowledge & expertise him/herself to immediately address these “issues” to explain the situation & clear up the misconception.

Had there been a knowledgeable person present, e.g., me, I could & would’ve have explained everything right there & then.

>> 2 were actually pretty good recommendations. 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

But I was already working on these enhancements at that time.

And while the reps may not have known that, my boss should’ve read my regular reports & e-mails & understood that I was (working on them). And if my boss didn’t understand something I communicated, then ask me, no?

>> 1 was a legitimate, good recommendation for which no effort was currently underway to fix or address it.

25 “issues”.

22 weren’t issues at all. 3 were, but 2 of them already had solutions being designed or built.

That’s EXACTLY why I strongly recommend that you don’t allow “them” to go outside after dark…unless you know your stuff!

Now, it actually becamean excellent opportunity for me to remind EVERYONE of those 25 “thingies” raised by various reps & provide an update (“Here’s what’s already there for you!”, “We’re already working on these 2 things!” & “Thanks for this excellent suggestion!”), especially considering that if Billy & Judy & Carol had these “issues”, then probably so did hundreds of other reps!

Look, I don’t expect senior leaders to be fully capable of effectively handling & addressing every last thing raised by the people.

But I DO expect them to realize this & go about this stuff accordingly.

Bring help with you. It doesn’t have to be (shouldn’t be) one of the people’s bosses as that’ll stifle any open & candid atmosphere.

But, in this case, for example, none of the reps reported to me, directly nor indirectly.

And I’m rarely armed at work…

In summary, you hafta actively elicit & solicit feedback from ALL your people in your organization.

But be well-prepared to address stuff on the spot or have the appropriate resources with you that can.

I fully realize that if you’re holding a “staff members only” meeting…but specifically & consciously omitting all middle managers so the people won’t be afraid of opening up…then be prepared to address stuff for which you may not have the answers.

You may wanna bring a knowledgeable Trainer along. If there’s another unit like yours, perhaps an expert from that unit could help address technical issues.

Remember, unless you know about “perceived problems” & address them head-on, they will continue to remain “REAL problems” in your people’s minds.

You can’t fight an unknown enemy!

Create & maintain an open & honest environment so the people will be comfortable about opening up to your & their supervisors about “what THEY feel”.

Perception is reality, be it right or wrong.


Thank you so much for listening!

P.S.  My apologies for repeating the piece about the “2 reps who didn’t understand some existing, vitally-important features” on our servicing system, but I’ve written this blog thingie, off & on, for probably 2 years.

Finding it hard to remember stuff I just did (or didn’t do) earlier today only underscores the difficulties I faced trying to recall what I wrote months prior.

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