Do You See What I See? Selective Perception and Leadership

I am keenly aware that people who are having a conflict often have difficulty resolving their differences because of their refusal to listen and understand the other person's positions and underlying motivations. When they are in the middle of a battle each side usually is thinking of additional points to reinforce their opinion and desired outcome but rarely are they listening and trying to understand what is being said to them by their challenger. There are also other reasons why people have difficulty resolving conflict and it’s because of a phenomenon called selective perception.

Selective perception is the process by which individuals perceive what they want to hear in a message while ignoring opposing viewpoints. It is a broad term to identify the behavior all people exhibit as we all tend to “see things” based on our personal frame of reference. Using selective perception people tend to overlook or forget information that contradicts their beliefs or expectations.

There are two types of selective perception. Perceptual vigilance refers to people noticing stimuli such as advertising or news reports that are significant to them. For example, someone considering buying a certain brand of car is more likely to notice ads about the car than someone who is neutral to the brand. In contrast, perceptual defense refers to people creating a barrier to screen out stimuli they find threatening or unpleasant. For example a smoker might filter out a photo of a diseased lung.

A classic study that illustrates both types of selective perception happened when students at Princeton and Dartmouth universities watched a film of a football game between the two schools. The Princeton students noticed more penalties committed by Dartmouth, and the Dartmouth students noticed more penalties by Princeton. Each group judged the football game depending on their team allegiance and ignored evidence that contradicted what they wanted to see.

Experts say that the factors influencing selective perception include previous experience, attitudes, conditioning, gender, age, race and emotional state.

The selective perception theory holds that we filter stimuli both consciously and unconsciously as we perceive stimuli. Consciously, we are able to block out certain stimuli, such as color, sounds, and images. We can consciously focus our attention on specific stimuli and disregard distracting, unimportant, or contradicting information. In other words, we actively choose what information we digest and what we disregard. This skill enables us to turn our attention away from certain stimuli and handle the multiple distractions that we encounter throughout our day.

However, selective perception also happens unconsciously, without purposeful effort on our part. This phenomenon leads us to positions and opinions that might not be rational or reasoned but are part of our decision making process.

As a leader and manager of people, selective perception plays a big role in your success. The key “takeaway” would be to not only listen to what people are saying but to try and understand by questioning them and how they came to their point of view. However that is not enough. You also need to do some soul searching into how you came to your conclusion based on your own perceptions which may or may not be valid.

While we normally don’t have time to take a deep look into all decisions, if we want to be successful in a work environment that continually involves communicating with people, it is imperative to take the time to resolve conflictive relationships that are unproductive. We owe that to our employees and we owe it to ourselves. Good leaders and managers of people can't be effective if they continue to remain in a state of unresolved conflict. Agreeing to disagree is not a solution.

Dan Portes
President/CEO
Management Resource Group, Ltd.