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Things Aren’t What You Think!

Things Aren’t What You Think!

I was at a conference the other day and saw a brief video that demonstrated something called the McGurk effect. I had never heard of this phenomenon, and found it fascinating. The presenter asked half the room – myself included – to close our eyes, and played 4 seconds of video which the other half of the room observed. The clip was simply a close up of an adult male face making sounds.

When the clip was complete the presenter asked, “Who heard the sound ‘ba ba’?” Every person on my half of the room raised his or her hand; nobody did on the other side of the room. Some of them had heard “ga ga”, some had heard “da da”, but nobody had heard “ba ba.” What was going on?

It turns out that the researcher who produced the video had asked the subject to make the sound “ga ga”, and then dubbed the sound of “ba ba” over it. But if that was the case, why did half the room still not hear it? How is it possible that perceptions of the exact same data could be so wildly different?

Here’s how it’s possible: from the day we’re born, our brains start learning that making the sound “ba” requires our lips to touch. By the time we’re adults in a room at a conference (and probably much earlier), that pattern is so deeply ingrained – and believed – that our brains literally can’t perceive the sound “ba”, even if that’s what our ears hear, unless we see lips touching.

As a result, the people who both saw and heard the video perceived contradictory information, and their brains interpreted the information to match what they already “knew”: if lips don’t touch, it’s not “ba”. Those of us with our eyes closed easily heard the true sound.

But here’s what was most fascinating to me: the presenter played the clip again, and we all got to watch it. Even though I knew that the actual sound was “ba”, I didn’t hear it. My brain, too, sided with its unconscious learned patterns, and I heard “ga”. (Try it yourself if you don’t believe me.)

So what does all of this have to do with leadership and teams? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about perception, the role it plays in the lives of teams, and the dangers of not recognizing it for what it is. I’ve sat with too many teams who have spun their wheels with different team members stuck in their version of the truth, arguing about whose perception is right.

The problem is not that people perceive different things and have multiple interpretations of what they perceive – that’s unavoidable in the human world. The problem is that few of us seem to recognize that pretty much everything we perceive is simply our brain’s interpretation of (probably) incomplete data, filtered through the patterns and biases we have learned over a lifetime. Instead, we believe what we think, and act as if what we perceive is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-wide-sky-cloudy-blue-hills-image48031226There’s a perspective within Buddhism that our human perception is like looking at the sky through a straw. The straw allows us to see only a part of the whole – what we see is not “wrong”, necessarily, but it’s incomplete. It’s not the vast, unobstructed sky. The problem, again, is that we think we’re seeing the whole thing. And we don’t question what we might be missing.

When members of a team believe what they perceive without question, they face significant consequences:

  • They waste a lot of time arguing about who is right. When people don’t recognize their straws and examine how those straws shape what they see, they tend to argue over whether the sky is gray or blue. As a result, they never explore the basis for each person’s perception, and miss the opportunity to build a collective picture that is more complete than any one person’s perspective. Haven’t you ever seen a sky that is both gray and blue, at the same time?
  • Teams make lower-quality decisions. When people believe their thoughts represent what’s really going on, they naturally become invested in defending them. When this happens on teams, they don’t fully explore the diversity of perspectives that lead to the best decisions. A decision based on seeing the sky as either gray or blue will probably not be as sound as one that takes both into account.
  • Team members draw unfounded conclusions about others that lower trust and interfere with effective teamwork. A few years ago I worked with a team on which one person had harbored negative feelings about a colleague for more than two years, based on her perceptions of an interaction. Those perceptions, which she believed for two years were the truth, turned out to be incomplete when she finally checked them out.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that perception is a bad thing, nor that as a leader you should encourage your team to operate only on the basis of hard, cold facts. That would be impossible anyway. But you do have a role in helping your team recognize the nature of human perception, and its limitations, so they can collaborate more skillfully.

Action steps for leaders

Here are some simple (but not necessarily easy) steps you can take to support your team in questioning their perceptions and interpretations.

1. Recognize your own perceptions and interpretations, and take responsibility for them. This may be the hardest step, since I assume you’re a human being just like your team members. But don’t underestimate the power of modeling, with your language and behavior, an understanding that everything you think and perceive is not the “truth”.

2. Seek out disconfirming data. As a teacher of mine said once, “Don’t side with yourself.” When you hold a strong opinion – about another person, about a situation, about the best direction to head – deliberately look for evidence and other perspectives that challenge what you think.

3. Insist that your team members distinguish between the facts they observe, and their perceptions and interpretations of those facts. Imagine if, at the conference I described before, everybody in the room was on a team charged with identifying what the sound of the video was. If the people who watched the video simply said it was “ga”, my half of the room would argue with that. But if they said, “the lips didn’t come together, and we heard ‘ga’”, then we’d suddenly be in a different conversation. How could half of us hear “ba” if the lips didn’t come together? What else might be going on? How could we get more information? These are the kinds of conversations you want your team to be having.

4. Make room for every perception to be heard. When you’re leading your team through an important discussion, be deliberate about including every voice. Explicitly say, “I want to hear every opinion, especially ones that don’t agree.” Thank people for speaking up and sharing a contrary perspective. Don’t rush to a conclusion – keep the initial focus on exploring underlying assumptions and creating mutual understanding.

Personally, I think the ability to recognize that the stories we live in are not the “truth” is one of the hardest skills for human beings to develop. And yet it’s a worthwhile endeavor – the teams who master this skill have more productive conversations, make better decisions, and more easily resolve conflict. What’s not to like about that?

What about you? What happens when everybody on your team believes that what they perceive is the truth? How do conversations go, especially on contentious issues? What helps you succeed in leading your team forward through the morass of incomplete and competing perceptions? I’d love to hear your comments!

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