Employees’ Perception is Culture Reality

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On the playground when I was a kid, a classmate asked me what color the sky was. I told him “blue,” most likely accompanied by a condescending eye-roll. He then pointed out that the version of blue I saw might not be the same blue color he saw.

I still remember how this gave me pause. As an elementary school kid, I had never thought about the nuances of perception before. I naturally assumed we saw the same version of blue because we were both humans with a set of eyes. Yet, upon thinking about it more, I realized that there was no way to verify that we were seeing the same color. And remember the white/gold or blue/black dress that broke the internet? Thousands of people viewed the same photo and saw a completely different color scheme.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “perception is reality.” We all view the world from a unique perspective, and while we can be aware that other perceptions exist, we tend to live within our own. This means that all of your company’s stakeholders – customers, employees, shareholders, etc.- base their reality on their perceptions. I heard the quote the other day by corporate consultant Kate Zabriskie: “The customer’s perception is your reality.” The same applies to employees. In fact, employees’ perception is your company culture reality.  

At CultureIQ, we define company culture as how and why things get done in an organization. Perception plays a significant role in that “why” component. The way our mind interprets the world around us drives our beliefs, and in turn, our beliefs drive our actions.

employee perception is culture reality

For example, let’s say that you’re presenting during an important meeting, and you notice that your manager is typing on her laptop while you’re speaking.

Your perception: Wow, I put so much work into this presentation, and my manager is multi-tasking. She doesn’t think the work I do is important enough to warrant her full attention.

Manager perception: I know how much work he put into this presentation, and I’m going to take diligent notes to share with him afterwards.

Now, let’s say your manager gets busy and forgets to share her notes with you. How would you feel? How would that impact that way you behave the next time your manager asks you to present?

Without constantly communicating openly about every situation, it’s difficult to identify these misalignments in perception, but crucial to know that they exist. How do you identify and understand perceptions?

Ask. At CultureIQ, we use survey statements such as “Leadership cares about me” and compare the extent to which different employee groups agree or disagree. If the data shows misalignment between employee groups, we dig into the survey comments to gather greater insight. If surveying isn’t a key way your company gathers feedback, perceptions can be discovered during honest one-on-one conversations, focus groups, or anonymous Q&A sessions with management.

As they say, there are two sides to every story. Whether you’re an individual contributor, a manager, or an executive, I challenge you to pause before blaming or dismissing an experience you’ve had. Instead, choose to be open and understanding, and don’t be afraid to ask why.

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