Perception as Reality

Perception as Reality
by P. Orin Zack
(March 8, 2002)

“Seeing is believing” isn’t just a cliché, it’s fact. Your life, and probably your business, depends on it. The thing is, it’s not just seeing we believe, but our perceptions in general. If you have to act quickly, there’s no time for analysis. You can’t call a committee meeting or schedule a focus group. The crisis has already happened, so you have to rely on instinct to get through it. Unfortunately, we humans don’t really have instincts. What we do have is experience and emotion, and most of the time that’s all we need.

Survival is the only thing that matters when you have no time to think. That’s something you can do after the danger has passed. But by then, your hasty solution might not seem so smart anymore. Recovering from quick-thinking escapes is what crisis management is all about.

You don’t really need to understand any of this in order to manage your crisis, though. There are lots of ways to take corrective action, and plenty to base them on without thinking about how the crisis was triggered in the first place. But by putting yourself into the situation and seeing the world as the trigger person saw it, you may find some new strategies that can prevent a recurrence elsewhere.

So let’s try an experiment. Put yourself in the position of the person who made that really bad decision which led to your most recent crisis, and play it through. You’re busy doing whatever job they did, and suddenly an unexpected event happens. It’s up to you to avoid certain disaster, and you have to do it now. There’s no time to call for help, and nobody to ask for advice. What do you know, and what do you do?

Perhaps you learned of the problem by phone. You’re at a meeting, or writing a report perhaps, and a call comes in. Whoever it is blurts out some horrendous story and starts describing the certain catastrophe to follow. You know that this is serious by the emotional state of your caller, even if they’re hiding it as best they can. Experience and emotion tell you that whatever you were busy with can wait; this is far more important.

The story your caller told might have been a huge exaggeration, but it seems real enough to your imagination, which is busy experiencing the scenario. Emotionally, you’ve bought into the doomsday vision, and are thrust into action on a wave of adrenaline. That possible future already seems real to you at some level, and you set out on a mission to avert the tragedy. Your hasty solution may have problems, but they seem far less fearsome than the disaster your imagination is screening in the back of your mind. So you make your decision, and set in motion whatever it was that you were certain would avert the end of the world.

Okay, so you’ve solved the problem, and now you can get back to work. Except for one crucial point: you reacted to the huge predicted effect, not the small immediate cause. That probably means your solution was more drastic than it needed to have been, and it most likely will cause lots of unintended effects. Those effects are going to launch the crisis that will soon require managing.

There was nothing irrational about anything your trigger person just did. It was all a natural reaction to whatever reality they were living in at the time. That reality, however, was a temporary one. By the time all that adrenaline wore off and they returned to what everyone else considers to be reality, it was too late. Now it’s your job to fix the problem.

At this point you may be wondering what the point of all that was, and how it can help you clean up the mess. If nothing else, it might change you opinion of the trigger person. If you assume that he or she was acting irrationally, then you’ll perceive them as being part of the problem. That will be your reality. You may choose to ignore the possibility that their actions had any value, and this will blind you to any wisdom or advice they may offer.

If, on the other hand, you accept that whatever reality they were experiencing at that moment was as real to them as this one is to you, then you will be in a far better position to perceive what’s really happening. And that will help you to correct the problem with a minimum of unintended effects.

Or would you prefer to have someone fix the crisis that you set off?

Copyright 2007 P. Orin Zack


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