I was watching a bee climbing up the window in my cottage, struggling to get out. Insects do this if they get inside; they go to a window and can see out but cannot fly away. My bee struggled up and down the glass, slipping down often and getting exhausted. When I opened the window further, the bee realised it could fly away and left.
I doubt if bees are sentient. If they were, I feel sure my bee would go back to the hive saying something like: “now listen up bees, I’ve an important message for you. If you struggle and work hard, you will succeed in the end. You have to persevere like me.” And my bee would go on to describe its experiences in my window and how it achieved its freedom by hard work.
But of course, it wasn’t like that at all. Had I not opened the window, it would have died eventually. Its struggles helped attract my attention, but it was only the bee’s perception that it succeeded on its own. The reality was that an unknown and random event took place, that enabled the bee to escape.
The perils of perception
For most of us, perceptions determine what we believe. I recommend a remarkable book about how wrong most of us are about almost everything. It’s called ‘The Perils of Perception’ written by Bobby Duffy and published by Atlantic Books. Mr Duffy was until recently, the Managing Director of the IPSOS MORI Social Research Institute.
Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute looks at public attitudes to key public services. Issues such as identity, social cohesion, physical capital and the impact of place on attitudes are all key themes of the Institute’s work. The company also specialises in mass media, brand loyalty, marketing and advertising research.
In a recent survey, IPSOS asked a wide range of people in many places about their perceptions. Do you eat too much sugar? What proportion of your country is aged over 65? What does it cost to raise a child? How much tax do the rich pay? Are we more ignorant than we used to be? Think about these kinds of questions. No matter how well informed you are, this book suggests your answers are likely to be wrong.
To quote a few examples:
- Nearly every country in the world over-estimates the number of people aged over 65. People in Italy for example, on average, believe that around 48% of their population is over 65. The real figure is 21%
- People in Great Britain believe that 44% of British people are overweight. In fact, 62% are.
- Hong Kong citizens believe that 28% of the population has diabetes. The correct figure is 8%
- Most surprising of all perhaps for Hong Kong, only 28% believe that Hong Kong people in general are happy. In fact, 89% of our population say they are happy!
- Hong Kong people turn out to have a wide gap between what they believe and what is the reality.
I know something about this from having conducted many employee opinion surveys over the years for employers. Without exception, if the mood in the Community at large was good, staff opinions of the Company would be good. If, for some reason, Hong Kong thought itself to be going through hard times, employees had far lower opinions of their Company.
In Company life, perceptions determine how our employees, our customers, shareholders and the Community view the Company. These perceptions often owe little to facts. Take the opinion survey example. It is unlikely that anything material changed in the way in which the company managed its employees since the last survey. Yet, if employees are feeling depressed because of feelings in the Community, they will feel depressed at work and rate the Company badly as a result.
Many misperceptions surround pay. Evidence from all research is that pay is well down the list of factors that affect employee morale and labour turnover. Almost everyone I ask feels they can and should earn more than they do now. (Try asking that question of people you know.) Yet very few of them are actively looking for another job. Why not? If pay is such an important motivator, one would think that anyone who feels underpaid would surely want to try and improve their income. Of course, other factors (teamwork, good boss, decent company and many others) influence morale but our perception is, when staff leave for example, that they are leaving because the company is not paying them enough.
Performance reviews and bonuses, despite many efforts to improve the process, are so prone to perception-led judgements that many companies have given up the struggle. They either accept the ‘this is how I feel about you’, gut-feel, approach; or go to endless bureaucratic lengths where minute fractions of a percentage salary increase will ‘reward’ sometimes huge differences in performance.
So – in business as in the world at large – relying on our perceptions means we get it wrong a lot, if not most, of the time.
So, what to do?
There are two answers – what we do about our own perceptions and what companies might do about the perceptions of their stakeholders.
For example, Bobby Duffy notes that emotionally expressive cultures tend to be more wrong than cooler cultures. It follows that if we find ourselves emotional about an issue, we need to take more care to verify our beliefs. By contrast if we wish to influence others’ opinions, we need to appeal to their emotions first. (This is how populist politicians and advertising agencies operate after all.)
Fact-checking is important. Our strongly held beliefs may still prevail but at least the facts must be known. A good example of this is the fear of disability alleged by a flawed study into the effects of the MMR multiple vaccine on young children. The study was incorrect and its leader went to jail for causing a major health scare by falsifying his ‘evidence’. Every single study since has shown there is no evidence of any kind to justify the fear. Yet millions of parents around the world will not give their children this life-saving vaccine because they believe the rumours and not the facts.
Duffy also notices that regions that are most confident with their answers are those with perceptions that are the most wrong. So, being sure about something does not make you right about it. In fact, chances are, you ought to question your perceptions even more. One of the CEO’s I most respect goes to endless lengths to challenge himself and his judgements on almost everything. It can be painful as he examines and re-examines every detail but those around him know him and trust his judgements as a result.
We need to be sceptical but not cynical to examine the facts rigorously and not judge just the headlines. By contrast, our messages to others must allow them to do the same. Being honest about a negative aspect of an otherwise positive message, means it is more likely to be believed.
People are not as like us as we think they are. The world contains a huge range of people and views. And as we have seen, most of them think they are right – even if they bitterly oppose each other. We need to accept that what we ardently believe may not, in fact, be right at all. Equally, companies must accept that they will never convince all their stakeholders about anything they want them to believe.
Lazy thinking leads many of us into believing extreme views – or views held by the few people we talk to – are universally the views of others. If I lead a focus group of employees and they all complain about an aspect of the company, my tendency is to think that all employees feel the same way. If one employee complains bitterly about, say, promotion prospects, does that mean that all employees are complaining? In both cases, the answer is almost certainly ‘no’. But it is all too easy to slip comfortably into a conclusion (and thus action) that ignores the views of many others.
Human perceptions are complicated, emotional and in some ways, go to the heart of being human. The bee might have believed it was responsible for its own escape. I know it was not – because I opened the window. But can I say that the bee was wrong? What if the bee had not buzzed so loudly? What if it had given up early on and hidden in a corner to die slowly? In our world today, we have to accept that almost everything we do contributes to something else happening. We are not the sole masters of our fate because others are contributing to our beliefs and thus the actions we take.
At least – those are my perceptions!