Whether negative perceptions about your organization are accurate or not, they can get in the way of executing on your mission. In other words, misperceptions can be as damaging to your organization as are accurate, but negative, perceptions. As the old adage goes, perception is reality. As such, misperceptions must be taken seriously and often dealt with in the same way as accurate, negative perceptions.
Overcoming negative perceptions starts with identifying stakeholder perceptions, determining whether or not you are committed to overcoming the perception and then, if committed, taking real, substantive and often visible action to change the perception. If you are not serious about changing a negative perception or committed to real change, then it may be better to ignore the perception, knowing what the consequences might be. In other words, if you are only going to engage “window dressing” your efforts may likely backfire.
If you are intentional about it, your organization can overcome negative perceptions, whether or not they are accurate. Here are 10 steps to alter perceptions.
Overcoming Misperceptions/Negative Perceptions
- Proactively seek out/determine stakeholder perceptions. You can’t alter perceptions if you don’t know what they are. Organizations should periodically field an attitudinal survey. Regularly surveying stakeholders, every other year, for example, will inform you about perceptions and provide you with baseline data against which to measure progress. This is also a great way to confirm what you might be “hearing in the street.” Do your best to survey all stakeholders, not just members.
- Listen for the kernel of truth. Don’t be defensive. Be careful not to reject misperceptions. Rather than outright reject misperceptions, seek the kernel of truth in what stakeholders are saying. Give the stakeholders the benefit of the doubt.
- Be willing to admit and accept there is an issue. There is no need to place blame. If your survey confirms that there are negative perceptions, accept the results as simply being a truth. For that matter, even if you don’t conduct a survey but are receiving feedback from multiple parties that has a common thread of negative perception running through it, accept that there is an issue.
- Evaluate the perceptions. Some negative perceptions may bring more harm to you than others. Consider to what degree the various negative perceptions impede your mission or the execution of your strategy. In doing so, recognize that a group of different negative perceptions may all have the same root cause. On the other hand, take note of and celebrate the positive perceptions that you identify. Ask yourself if there is some way to exploit the positive perceptions in overcoming some of the negatives. Evaluating and prioritizing negative perceptions will inform your next steps.
- Determine if you and your organization are willing to do what it takes to change the negatives. You only get one chance to start the journey of changing perceptions; a halfhearted attempt or a strategy that deploys “window dressing” could backfire. It comes down to whether you are committed to or just interested in changing perceptions. If you are committed, the perceived value of changing the perceptions is greater than the perceived difficulty of doing so; if you are interested, the perceived difficulty is greater than the perceived value. If you are committed, you act no matter what; if you are interested, you act if the circumstances permit. If you are committed, you will have results; if you are interested, you will have a bunch of reasons why you should act.
- Determine the root cause. Put simply, this means figure out why those with negative perceptions think the way they do. Start by identifying some people that hold the negative perception and engage in a dialogue with them to find out why they hold the perception. Remember, don’t challenge them or be defensive, just listen and accept what they are saying. In fact, consider using Toyoda’s Five Whys root problem identification methodology. This step is probably the most important one; it is absolutely critical that you identify the right and real problem before you embark on developing a problem solving strategy.
- Develop a strategy to change the perception. You may need different strategies for different stakeholder groups. Don’t develop your strategy in a vacuum; key to a sound strategy is diverse perspective. In this case, you will want to include those with negative perceptions in the strategy development process. There are many strategy development and problem solving models out there. One you might consider for this task is a force field problem-solving model. Make sure that your strategy contains sound metrics for evaluating / measuring success.
- Take visible action. As you execute your strategy, seek some tactics that are visible and then promote the action being taken. But remember, changing perceptions requires more than those with negative perceptions seeing what is different. It is equally or more important that they feel the change as well. As you are considering tactics, always keep the root problem in mind and ask yourself if the tactic will truly attack the root problem. If the tactic doesn’t meet this test, it may very well be “window dressing.”
- Be patient. Perceptions don’t change overnight. You need to have an ongoing strategy and a set of tactics that are rolled out and repeated over time. As you begin the journey of change, the goal is progress not perfection. Part of your job is building trust in those that held the negative perceptions; this takes time.
- Measure progress. In addition to fielding follow up attitudinal surveys, it is important that you regularly check in with some of the initial critics. By engaging some of the critics in the strategy development process and then seeking their input as the changes progress you may very well end up with some of your organization's best promoters.