How Perception Shapes Reality – And How To Change Yours

It is easy to see through people who make spectacles of themselves.

Let’s face it. No one sees things as they “really” are. Four people can witness the same car accident and report very different things. People’s perceptions vary.

One of the reasons for the varying perceptions is the fact that people have different attitudes. Attitudes act like filters allowing you to see some things and miss other things. For example, if you’re a liberal Democrat, you’re much more likely to accept what another liberal Democrat says. And you’d question whatever a conservative Republican says. You would be able to see all the benefits of the Democratic approach, and you could probably list all the things wrong with the Republican’s plan. Quite simply, your attitude affects what you see and hear. And it often determines how you will respond.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when you have to deal with a dysfunctional team member. If you have a negative, “I – can’t – stand – that – person” attitude, you’re going to have a very difficult time with that individual. You may even do some things that would make things worse. You may be extremely cool around that person, or you may try to make the other person change. Neither one works.

So what can you do? How can you cope with dysfunctional team-member behavior? How do you gently push the other person into more appropriate, helpful behavior? That’s a part of what I teach in my program on “Cooperation and Conflict: Working Together Instead of Coming Apart.”

START WITH A NON-DEFENSIVE ATTITUDE. Don’t let the dysfunctional person get to you. Don’t get hooked. Don’t be drawn into behavior that will make the other person’s behavior even more difficult.

You can stay unhooked by taking an “EDUCATION ATTITUDE.” An IBM Vice-President taught me that. He told me he used to get very upset with certain types of people and their behavior. Then one day, it dawned on him, “Those people are there to teach me something. Those people were put in my path to bring me a lesson. The team member who constantly objects to any and all change, for example, may be there to remind me that my plans will hurt some people. I have to consider people, not just processes.”

If you have an “education attitude,” you’ll feel less of a need to fight the other person. You’ll stay focused on getting your work done, and you’ll be less distracted by the dysfunctional behavior. So the next time you see behavior that turns you off, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this individual?”

A second attitude you can take is the “ENTERTAINMENT ATTITUDE.” Peter Walshaw, General Manager of the Hyatt Kings Gate Hotel in Auckland, New Zealand says it beautifully. He says, “99% of the people we have to deal with are pretty good. Reasonable demands. Reasonable work. Reasonable to get along with. But it’s the one percent that drives us crazy.” Most of us would probably say the same thing about our work situation. However, the secret lies in Walshaw’s next comment. He says, “Treat that one percent like they are there to entertain us!”

How wonderful! Instead of getting upset with a dysfunctional team member, look at it as entertainment. When a difficult person comes to you with an unreasonable demand, lighten up. Look at it as show time. Tell yourself, “The curtain’s going up. I wonder what it will be this time.” Look at the other person’s quirks, foibles, and abuses as amusing rather than agitating.

You could also take a “CALM ATTITUDE.” Stay cool. Don’t get trapped. And you know you’re trapped when you get so angry you can’t do your job. The dysfunctional team member is controlling you at that point.

If a dysfunctional person takes control of you, retake control by taking a break. Play racquetball or do something fun or athletic to let off steam. Think things through. Tell yourself, “I can handle it.” Whatever you do, come back to your team calm, refreshed, ready to focus on other people and other things. Simply decide, the difficult team member may give himself a headache, but he is not going to give you one.

Above all, maintain an “OPEN-MINDED ATTITUDE.” When you see dysfunctional team behavior, it’s natural to think you’re right and the other person is wrong. That sets up an adversarial relationship.

You will be better off if you adopt an “open-minded attitude.” The secret lies in self-talk. Tell yourself: “Slow down. Wait a moment. Don’t react too quickly. Find out what the person really means. Hear him out. Remember, he sees things differently. So keep an open mind.”

The “open-minded attitude” is especially important if you’re a team leader. People have a natural tendency to resist leaders. On the one hand, team members want a dynamic leader who will inspire them, but they’re also a little hostile towards anyone who has power over them. People are contradictory. So whenever your idea is shot down or a team resists your leadership, remember, it may be no more than a natural instinct to rebel against authority.

If you’re a team leader, you might also remind yourself that you’re paid to handle difficult team members. That’s a part of your job. And that’s why you’re given a somewhat higher position or more authority.

Robert Updegraff says it this way: “A leader should be grateful every hour of every day for the troubles of his job. They pay at least half his wages and salary. For if there were no troubles it would be easy to get someone to do his work for half, or even a third, of the pay he is getting. If he wants a bigger job, with a bigger income, he has to look for more troubles, and learn how to like them.”

No matter how great your team might be or might become, there will always be some dysfunctional behavior displayed by some of the team members. People are people. No one is perfect. Rather than bemoan the fact dysfunctional behavior exists, cope with it by taking one of the non-defensive attitudes I’ve discussed.

Then take some ACTION to reduce or eliminate the dysfunctional behavior. I’ll talk about that next week.

Action:  Select one or two people that you see as difficult or dysfunctional. Select people that you live or work with. Then each time you interact with them in the next two weeks, choose the “education attitude.” Figure out what lesson you can learn from them instead of getting upset.