Truth May Be Muddled in Perception

by Mark Murphy

Imagine you’ve got an employee who’s recently been doing a lousy job. You sit him down and give him some constructive feedback about his subpar work. But instead of accepting your feedback, he looks at you genuinely bewildered and says, “I think I’ve been doing a great job. I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about!”

If you’ve ever had that challenge, you’ve witnessed a psychological bias called “selective perception.”

In 1951, Dartmouth and Princeton played an important, and incredibly violent, football game. Princeton was undefeated and its Heisman-winning star, Dick Kazmaier, was playing his last game. But from the moment the game started, penalty flags were thrown constantly. In the second quarter, Kazmaier left the game with a broken nose. In the third quarter, a Dartmouth player was taken off the field with a broken leg. Princeton won, but heated discussion about “who was dirtier” continued at both schools for weeks.

That’s when psychologists Albert Hastorf at Dartmouth and Hadley Cantril at Princeton got together to study a phenomenon that would become known as “selective perception.”

They showed the video of the game to students at each school and had them mark any rules infractions and their severity (mild or flagrant). Even though all students saw the same exact game film, Princeton students saw the Dartmouth team make twice as many infractions. And when they rated the severity of those penalties, they saw two “flagrant” to one “mild” on the Dartmouth team, and about one “flagrant” to three “mild” on the Princeton team.

As you can guess, the Dartmouth students saw a very different game. To them, each team made about the same number of infractions. And the severity was about one to one when they judged their own team, and about one “flagrant” to two “mild” when they assessed Princeton’s penalties.

Even though both student bodies watched the same game film, in their minds they saw very different games. Princeton’s “truth” about the game was different from Dartmouth’s “truth.” And that’s the essence of selective perception.

I recently conducted a similar study using a hotel chain’s secret shopper video. We gathered its 50 managers and supervisors to watch videos of customers checking into one of its hotels. Following each one, the managers were asked to rate the employee’s performance from “poor” to “great” service.

On the first video, managers watched a late-night check-in. A bleary-eyed customer walked up to the front desk and said, “I’ve got a reservation under Joe Smith.” The hotel employee smiled and said, “Absolutely sir, let me find that. While I’m doing that, how was your trip in? Did you beat the rain? Don’t you just love this time of year?” The tired-looking guest grumbled something that sounded like “Uh.” It went on like this for a few minutes, the clerk’s sunny chitchat followed by the guest’s grunt, until finally the transaction was completed and the guest was handed the room key.

When the managers rated this video, there was no consensus. When I asked the managers who rated it “great” service to tell me why, I heard feedback like, “No matter how grouchy the customer was, our employee never let her affect turn negative; she stayed positive and cheerful the entire time.”

And when I asked the managers rating it “poor” to tell me why, I heard comments like, “I would have gouged my eyes out if I had to listen to that sappy drivel at 11 p.m. when I’m exhausted.”

What’s clear is that, even though these were all managers at the same hotel with ostensibly the same business goals, selective perception caused them to view this simple customer check-in in wildly divergent ways. And imagine how widespread selective perception is throughout the rest of the organization.

So, before you give someone constructive feedback, it’s a useful exercise to make sure you’ve got a common framework for seeing the world. Try asking your employees, “How do you define great performance?” or “In your mind, what does subpar work look like?” By discovering their perceptions, you’ll know which areas need some teaching and consensus-building before you can deliver constructive feedback.

Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His forthcoming book is Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages (McGraw-Hill; $24; May 26, 2017). His previous books include Hiring for Attitude and Hundred Percenters: Challenge Your Employees to Give It Their All and They’ll Give You Even More.

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