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Expectations vs Perception: A Conundrum

Oct 13, 2015

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By Jim Edmondson

In a work environment, just like in life, sometimes the line between our expectations and our perceptions is blurred. This can result in misunderstanding, miscommunication, and disputes between employees. You have expectations regarding your life, your job and how things will turn out; well your job has expectations of what you will provide as well. Expectations are defined as a belief that someone or something will or should achieve or result in a certain thing. The issue with expectations in most situations, especially in work places, is that unless expectations are clearly and concisely communicated, it’s very difficult to hold someone accountable. Without some detail regarding what is expected, it’s very hard to produce a result.

The conundrum occurs when our understanding of our relationship, role or how an instruction was delivered by our superior is clouded by our perception. Perception in this case is defined as the way we have of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something. Perception is also often referred to as an impression, notion, belief, estimation or judgement. Perceptions vary from person to person. Different people perceive different things about the same situation and often we assign different meanings to what we perceive. This can be problematic because, the meanings of things and situations can be distorted and cause or inflame issues.

In the workplace, generally, conflict and dispute do not exist without some pre-existing perception problem. When a perception problem exists between two people, each perceives or believes that they have incompatible interests and that the other person is opposed to or does not understand their position. Identifying the source of misperceptions or conflicts before it turns into a dispute is essential to maintaining a good and productive work environment.

A huge perception and conflict issue exists when colleagues have differing ideas about their respective professional futures. This is the “just a job” versus career aspirations scenario. Take two employees, Jane and Bob. Bob is anxious to get ahead and frequently spends extra hours in the office, takes on additional assignments and is viewed by Jane as “kissing up.” Jane views these actions – and Bob – with disdain, and possibly anger. While Jane’s perception – and fear – is that Bob is making her work look bad, Bob may be fulfilling a lifelong dream, does not have the family responsibilities that Jane does, or perhaps is just passionate about the job they do. Until the perception is dealt with there will continue to be conflict between the two employees which will eventually affect their effectiveness.

When determining how co-workers, supervisors or subordinates do their jobs, which regrettably we all do in a work environment, it is critical to understand that every person works differently, at a different pace and have their own way of achieving the end result. Just because the person doesn’t work like you or do the exact same process we often perceive them as lesser but that is dangerous and leads to conflict. As best we can, it is always advisable to look at the situation from all angles before forming a perception or being aware of the pitfalls of our perceptions can alleviate some of the issues.

Our perceptions in the workplace are often affected by the management style employed by our manager and can impact the manager-subordinate relationship. If a manager is hands-off, they may be perceived as not caring enough about the work the staff does. Alternatively, a manager may be so detail-oriented and anxious that they are perceived as not trusting the employees to do their jobs. The former may lead to apathy on the part of individuals that aren’t self-motivated; the latter may lead to resentment among those who are.

Expectations are important in all relationships whether professional or personal. If not well communicated, expectations often create conflict and dysfunction inside of relationships. What’s true of your friendships or your marriage are also true in a workplace. A good manager will let staff know what is expected from them, how their performance will be measured and what ‘success’ looks like. This is described clearly up front through training and continuous feedback about whether expectations are being met. If you are not clear on the expectation of a work instruction, then ask. The best time to ask is when you begin on a new task not when you deliver it and the boss is unhappy with the results. It is always advisable in work situations to be clear regarding what is expected or required. I operate by the old adage that there are no stupid questions, it is prudent to get clarification before proceeding because it can avoid issues at a later point.

A valuable technique to gain clarification on expectations, at work or at home, is called reflection or parroting. When someone tells you what they expect, reflect it back to them in your own words to ensure that what they said and what you interpreted it to mean are the same thing. This avoids miscommunication and potential perception issues. Try to ensure that following any instruction or project; make sure you have some semblance of a specific detailed list of the actual actions you need to take, and then take them.

Next time you are given a directive at work or you are interacting with a co-worker, think about expectations and perception before making a decision, being aware of the pitfalls will always result in less conflict and a more harmonious workplace.

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