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Friday, September 23, 2011

Learning the skill of perception management

If you have understood the unfolding of cognitive talent, perception management is an 'Achilles heel' for many of the cognitive performers.

Perception is a subjective interpretation of observed facts. If I meet you in a office for 15 minutes, and you conclude after our meeting that " I am unprofessional', that is a perception. It is based on subjective interpretation of the 'facts that you observed in the 15 minutes'. It may be accurate or inaccurate. But many decisions are based on perceptions. Due to reasons, as we see below, perception is dominant in companies.

Why do we always use perception to evaluate others

But if you pause for a while, you will appreciate that even you also use perception to evaluate others most of the time.

When you go out to buy a soap, are you evaluating the soap based on its chemical and purifying attributes, or on subjective brand  features of the soap? When you choose X doctor in comparison to Y, do you compare their professional merit or do you choose on the basis of their clinic's get-up and doctor's manner of speech? When you evaluate your TV mechanic/automobile mechanic, do you evaluate them on their 'deep knowledge and merit' or on their 'dress and manner of speech'?

Why do we use perception more often than objective facts to decide? It is because of two reasons: either we do not have enough 'time' or enough 'ability' to evaluate. While buying soap we should evaluate the 'soaps chemical characteristics and its benefits' to us. But as we think that we will not gain enough 'value from the effort', we conclude  'time versus value' trade-off is not beneficial. Consequently, we do not spent the necessary time in evaluating soap !

When we are buying a high priced car though, we do spend much more time to collect more 'objective facts' on cars. But we hit another barrier : the barrier of specialisation. Even if the carmaker gives us all the objective information about car engine,gear and other parts, we do not have the 'cognitive ability' to evaluate, because that needs understanding of special domain called automobile engineering. Due to the same barrier of specialisation, we cannot evaluate the 'speciality of doctor's medicine' even when the doctor is saving our life.

Limited time at our disposal and the continuing 'super specialisation' in today's world ( which makes it impossible for us to evaluate these specialist fields)forces all of us to use 'perception' more than we like.Advertising industry not only understands our limitation, it exploits it fully. Although we can crib about it as much as we want, we cannot do anything about it because the root-cause is 'systemic'. 

Why is perception management critical in work-life

Our key evaluators - be it bosses, superbosses, colleagues and customers - almost always, evaluate us with 'subjective' interpretation of what they observe in us when we meet them for the first time. 

When researchers studied the impact of 'perception' in a 15 minute selection interview, they were surprised. They found that interviewers evaluate the interviewee in the first 3 minutes, and spend rest of time in 'confirming' the initial judgement made in 3 minutes. Perception, in other words, create virtuous cycle (depending on how you see it) that determine the final evaluation. In psychology, this is called as primacy bias, and despite the care taken to reduce it, it remains dominant !

Given the high degree of specialisation in a company, and given the 'time scarcity' of senior executives, perceptions are heavily used to evaluate employees in a company more than the objective facts. With bosses, with whom we have constant interaction, the role of perception may get reduced. However, with other key evaluators in an organisation, it is perception that matters. Whether you like it or not, you live in the imperfect world ! I know of several individuals in companies who survive in an organisation just on the basis of managing perception.

Four principles of Perception management

Perception management is done to ensure that your 'evaluator' will evaluate you 'positively' in the 'short initial interactions' until there is sufficient time for them to assess your  'merit'. 

If you help others to perceive you in positive manner, it will multiply your opportunities and open your access to important people in the organisation. Negative perceptions, on the other hand, means that you have lost the battle even before you have entered the battleground.  

To help others perceive you positively, follow these four generic principles:

1. Remember 'packaging' creates +ve perception, because it is difficult to understand and evaluate 'content inside the package'. Remember this rule all the time.

That is why body language, manner of walking, proper dress, personal grooming, use of branded accessories such as phones and belts create lasting impact than anything else. Use them skillfully. For instance, i always advise professionals to wear 'dark shaded' trousers and 'light shaded' shirts in corporate world because that is the 'norm' in companies. Wearing 'gaudy' colours creates -ve perception.

2. Perceptions are 'subjective interpretations'. Therefore, find the meaning attached by your evaluators to key concepts

Take effort to understand the 'exact meaning' of concepts such as  'good performance', 'hard work', 'smartness' of your key evaluators.

For instance, some bosses evaluate performance of their juniors, based on their 'team-coordination qualities' and not on 'individual contribution'. Some bosses call juniors as 'hard-working' only when they are seen sitting in the office beyond 7 pm. Some bosses consider a junior 'smart' , only when he can prepare a 'jazy ppt'. 

Howsoever subjective these 'qualities' may be defined by bosses, one has to 'adhere' to them during the 'initial period' of work acclimatization with them. On the other hand, because we interact with 'super-bosses', customers and other colleagues infrequently, perception management has to be done 'constantly' with them. 

3. Follow the protocols of behaviour that is prevalent in your organisation

Every organisation has a protocol for the events such as  'disagreeing in a group', 'attending meetings', 'taking personal calls while in meeting', 'writing emails to insiders and outsiders', 'manner of talking in a public place like staircases, corridor or canteens', 'manner of interaction in conference calls' and so on.

Take extra effort to understand these protocols and follow them 'rigidly' without questioning it. If you do not follow them, you are seen as 'black sheep'.

4. Work actively to help evaluators 'assess ' your merit, so that dependence on perception is reduced

Because your field is 'specialised', you have to help others to 'evaluate' your merit appropriately. If you are a 'good hardware engineer' you have to educate others to help them evaluate your 'speciality of hardware engineering'. I know it is hard work. But it is catch-22 situation for you. To evaluate you appropriately,  you have to work hard on 'educating others'. If you do not educate, you still have to work hard on managing their perception, because - without your help- they will keep relying on perception. Both options require hard work. Which option do you prefer?.


Perception management is not 'showing off' or 'branding' for creating the 'right impression'. It is a strategy meant to ensure that your key evaluators 'understand' your merit and do not get put off by the 'initial impression'. If the initial impression is created wrongly, you have to take extra effort to 'undo' the impression. Perception management helps you reduce your 'undoing' effort and start on the 'strong footing' right from the beginning. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Choose your talent zone (work-path)

While sportsman and artists choose their talent zone (i.e. play tennis or engage in dance) by the age of 5-8, cognitive performers ( what Peter Drucker calls as knowledge workers) working in engineering, law, accounts, and service professions do not choose their talent zone even till the age of 20 because of the genuine difficulties they face.

Let me clarify what we mean by talent. Talent is not a 'potential' ability; it is a demonstrated ability in a person who can replicate that ability consistently in different situations. Therefore, when one is young, one does not have a talent, one only has a potential 'ability'. To convert this potential ability into a talent, one has to chose a wide enough 'Talent Zone', otherwise ability remains just a dormant ability.

Only after artists and sportsman chose 'Talent Zone' ( you can also think of it as work-path) to invest time and resources, they can embed 'talent' in their lives, like you can design 'fashion' for your life. Designing talent is not just imagining the 'to-be' possibilities for yourself, but also giving form to those possibilities. Having chosen their talent zone, artists and sportsman then find ways and means to incrementally increase the challenges, use coaches and other support mechanisms to negotiate these challenges, narrow or widen the 'core ability' in the talent zone( should i do ballet or kathakali), develop complementary abilities to excel in the core ability, and write their 'signature' in the world.

If there are so many benefits of using a talent zone, why can't you, as cognitive performers, choose your talent zones ( work-paths) even at the age of 20, i.e when you are graduating. There seems to be two reasons. One is ignorance of the associated risks, and second is the knowledge of the talent designing process of cognitive talents.

Risk Scenario 1 : You may choose a wrong talent zone

Many graduate students avoid choosing a talent zone (work-path) , because they feel they may go on a wrong path and will not be able to recover from the mistake. This is incorrect understanding of the risk.

When artists and sportsman choose a talent zone, they are ready to exit if they realise they are not made for it. They can exit because they develop intermediate capabilities while pursuing the talent zone. They can combine these intermediate capabilities with other capabilities to find a different talent zone or domain.

For instance, take the example of of Jose Mourinho. He started as a professional footballer, but he soon realised that he may not be the best football player. He switched his work-path to football coaching. In other words, he used his intermediate capabilities and combined it with 'training' capability to pick an allied path of 'coaching'. He is one of the most successful football coaches today who has taken three different sides to the highest levels: Porto, Chelsea, and Real Madrid.

In aesthetic and sports fields, you will find countless examples. Subhash Ghai trained as an actor, but when he failed to break through, he changed the work-path to director and became one of the most successful directors in Bollywood. Mohinder Amarnath started his cricketing career as a fast bowler and retired as one of the best batsman. In cricket, you will find many examples of cricketers who, unable to find place in top team, still manage to earn enough money through their intermediate capabilities such as coaching youngsters, or managing their cricket association.

As cognitive performers, you can follow these examples. If you are on the education path of technology, you may choose any of the these functions: Sales, Design, Research, or working in Management of a company. Or if you are on the education path of accounts, you can choose subject speciality such as Investment banking, Auditor, merger and acquisitions and so on.

How should one make this choice? Many students lack the knowledge of talent development process to choose. For instance, when an athlete chooses a game, say football versus tennis, at the age of 7, he does not choose based on his potential. He just plays both the games,and then slowly over a period of time, finds the game where he is excelling. When he has no other game to play in his town or city, he just chooses the one that is available.  For instance, in India more than often, one chooses cricket.

The same holds for cognitive talent. After engaging with technological subjects in graduation, you can find out your abilities in those subjects and choose research or design zone. Some talent zones, to be chosen, require more dense engagement. For instance, only after working in a company would you know if you will excel in managing people or projects.

Morevr, as compared to aesthetic and sports field, the risk of not finding alternatives in one's chosen domain in cognitive fields is very low. In cognitive fields, the possibility of combining different skills is enormous. Cognitive performers can work in corporate, government organisations, social NGO's or can even start their company. They can work in the back office functions such as quality, maintenance or support or can work in the front office functions such as sales or production. They can work as 'solo performers' or as 'managers'. The possibilities are truly enormous. In other words, the risk scenario (1) is non-existent in cognitive fields.

Risk scenario 2: After choosing a domain, you may not reach the top

This is a genuine fear. Even sportsman and artists face this fear. But no one, i have seen, drops the pursuit of the talent because they are scared that they may not reach the top. And surprisingly, even though , when they do not reach the top (remember not more than 5% reach the top), they still feel that 'journey was well worth'.

There are two reasons why 95% still pursue the talent journey, i think. One is, the benefits of pursuing a domain are that it provides them an anchor to live their life. They are more grounded and can face the chaotic situations in their life with calm. Two, 95% can still get enough money even when they do not get the highest. As we discussed in the blog of 12 June, the extent of money is determined by the functioning of skill market. If the skill market is well developed, choosing a desired domain is easier. This is why it has now become so easy to chose 'music domain' in India.

In cognitive fields, the difference between the top 5% and the rest is not so steep as in sports and arts field. In cognitive fields, the talents are not uni-dimensional as in arts or sports. For instance, it is easy to figure out the top 20 violinist in the world, but it is not easy to figure out the top 10 managers in the industry. In other words, options to 'monetise' your talent are so numerous that it does not matter if you do not reach the top.

Given that there is very little risk, what stops cognitive performers in choosing their domains during graduation? I can only think of one reason: their lack of knowledge of how the process of talent development works.