Thought Leaders

Understanding Employee Perceptions Is A Prerequisite To Better Project Management

perception cognition

Project Managers can be exposed to people from all walks of life, from all positions. Every single one of those people have their own perceptions; of themselves, of the PM, of the project, and of the work being done.

Each of those individual perceptions have been arrived at by the same cognitive processes but are almost entirely subjective to the individual.

Have you ever walked into a room that you have been in multiple times before, and noticed something in there you have never spotted before? For a second, you stop, wondering if it’s always been there. Then, you consider how you could possibly have missed it.

If the above scenario sounds familiar, then perhaps you are already aware of how your perception of the world around you can sometimes be deceptive. Your perception of the world is shaped by your brain, which collects, sorts, organizes and interprets all the stimuli your five senses pick up.

Cognitive psychologists have identified two key processes, which collectively make up your ‘perception’ of the world. There’s bottom-up processing, which is the direct flow of sensory information, like smelling fresh flowers, or seeing a red table. This is objective sensory information that your brain can easily interpret.

Then there’s top-down processing. This process is where your brain uses its available knowledge, experience, and thoughts to interpret sensations. Look at the following letters, for example: DA__GE__. When you read those letters, did you know instantly that the missing letters were ‘n’ and ‘r’, to spell ‘DANGER’? Perhaps it was the red text that called it out for you?

We are so used to seeing the word ‘danger’ printed in bold, red and uppercase letters that our brains make the instant connection. Or perhaps you saw a different word entirely, maybe dagger, for example? Either interpretation is entirely valid.

For every single bit of environmental stimuli we encounter in our day-to-day lives, our brains use a combination of both bottom-up and top-down processes to help us interpret the world around us.

This means that our perceptions are not necessarily the ‘reality’ of the world but are instead derived at as much by subjective criteria as objective ones, if not more so. This is just as much the case for Project Managers. After all, PMs are very much in the business of people, and are therefore managing people’s perceptions of projects just as much as they are managing the people themselves.

It isn’t necessarily the job of PMs to manage other people’s perceptions, as far as one human being can reasonably manage the perceptions of others.

But, understanding other people’s perceptions, and especially how those perceptions have been arrived at, can be an important aspect in managing project teams or individuals, especially in high-pressure and high-stress environments.

But it isn’t just other people’s perceptions to consider. The PM also needs to consider their own. Very rarely do we stop and think about how we see the world, or how we view our projects through our own eyes.

Given how heavily our perception relies on our individual experiences, knowledge, and expertise, PMs are just as much limited in their perception as everyone else.

If a PM has had a negative experience with contract admin, for example, their top-down process will negatively influence, either consciously or subconsciously, any perceptions of contract admin thereafter.

Whilst our individual perceptions are limited, there are also benefits associated with varying perceptions from one PM to the next. Different perceptions of the world mean different viewpoints, approaches, and solutions, which is crucial when problem-solving.

Differing perceptions of projects can also aide a project team in getting a wider or more rounded view of a project, or even open new avenues for exploration that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. This is why a Peer Review process can be such a valuable tool in project development. Peer Reviews mean fresh pairs of eyes, and with them new and different perceptions.

The human capability of perception is undoubtedly limited. As powerful a processing tool as a human brain is, there are limitations as to how much environmental stimuli we can take in at any one time. Even then, that limited information is processed, filtered and interpreted through our own, subjective view of the world.

But these limitations do not always need to be disadvantages from a project perspective. For everyone involved in a project, their own perceptions are not the reality, but rather their individual reality. Understanding perceptions – your own just as much as everyone else’s – can be a powerful tool in project delivery. After all, if you can change perceptions, you may just change reality.

Gavin Gerlach is a Project Manager at ETL.

Gavin Gerlach
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