Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

3 minute read

Learning to Reperceive

We review, revise, rethink, revisit, and re-experience nearly every waking moment, yet we don't reperceive nearly enough.

I hereby nominate "reperceive" for inclusion in the pocketbook of essential business terms. We review, revise, rethink, revisit, and reexperience nearly every waking moment, yet we don't reperceive nearly enough. And I think that's foolish. Learning to reperceive has helped me shed long-held assumptions that prevented my growth as a manager — and a person. Here's how ...

Perhaps reperceive has not entered the vernacular because perception is rooted in the moment — it's an experience, sensory and cognitive, that instantly calls into action our deep-rooted beliefs and assumptions. These discrete experiences govern our interaction with an environment and the people in it. We are rarely wrong in our perceptions of physical events, but we often perceive other people incorrectly. These misperceptions can not only derail relationships, but they can also capsize companies.

The difference between realization and reperception is this: You can't reperceive unless you have achieved some initial realization. One can't happen without the other. When you realize something, you reach some conclusion that hinges on various personal perceptions of factors, events, and people. When you realize something, you don't necessarily change the way you operate in the world — you may later conclude that bad judgment resulted from an oversight or a temporary distraction, not from a fundamental problem with your mores. In reperceiving, however, you question your inherent assumptions and strive for a realization that may change your belief systems in a substantive way.

About 10 years ago, I became estranged from my older daughter. We had grown apart over a decade — from the time I divorced her father until she was a sophomore in college. That period strained both of us. I had initiated the divorce but didn't feel comfortable explaining my reasons to her. She saw that the family was miserable and did not understand why one parent would cause everyone so much pain. Empathizing with her pain, I felt and acted terribly guilty, which only reinforced her sense that the divorce was unjustified.

When I remarried, the situation deteriorated. A series of struggles with my daughter ensued and finally ended one terrible night when I said that we no longer needed to maintain a relationship. I would pay her tuition, but I would not accept any other contact unless it was on different terms. Thanksgiving passed.

In December, I called her to reconcile. We took turns talking about our perceptions of the past. We agreed not to interrupt with justifications or to "set the record straight." We agreed that perception can't be set straight after the fact. That dialogue allowed us to revisit our shared past from another person's point of view. Finally, we were able to dismiss our grudges.

Unfortunately, my most important professional reperception was not accompanied by a frank discussion. In last month's column, I talked about my long-standing friendship with a manager named Sam and how that relationship caused problems with the rest of my management team. My managers believed that I would dismiss negative comments about Sam's performance, so they did not address his problems with me. By the time I realized Sam's failures, the situation had grown so bad that I had to replace him. My relationship with several managers never recovered, and they left the company. Sadly, I am still trying to resolve some issues from that period.

My reperception came when I wondered why all those good people had shut me out. As I struggled with this question, I revisited my memories and focused on the uncomfortable environment we were working in. Only by taking a step back could I reperceive how my behavior toward Sam had discouraged open dialogue among colleagues. Sam was considered the teacher's pet. Since then, I've come to view management differently. I realize that I have a lot of friendships — but not friends — at work.

Conventional wisdom tells us to walk a mile in another man's shoes before delivering judgement. It's good practice. So when perceptions become tangled and problems arise, the hardest and most essential thing you can do is stop and reperceive.

More columns by Katherine Hammer.