Closing the perception gap

I’ve been involved in a big leadership development project recently for a firm who are looking to improve their leadership. They’re already very successful and have a very positive culture, but of course everyone can always aspire to better. Part of the process has been a 360˚ leadership survey in which a handful of people have given feedback on the leadership strengths and weaknesses of the individuals.

It’s been highly illuminating for those involved, many of whom hadn’t understood that they were perceived in that way. For example, one delegate wasn’t surprised that they had feedback that they showed their frustrations quite publicly. But what they were surprised about was the way that it made newer team members feel quite anxious. They felt that everyone just knew who they were and took it for granted that, on occasion, they’d let a bit of steam come out of their ears.

There’s absolutely nothing unusual about this – and whilst that person might need a bit of encouragement to change the fundamental behaviour – what was so interesting was how the 360˚ exercise revealed such a gap between how the team members perceived the leader’s behaviour (scary!) and how the leader perceived it (letting off a bit of steam when busy – nothing serious).

The label for this? A perception gap: where someone’s intentions are different to the other’s perceptions. The term’s used more heavily when describing a gap between what a company intends and a customer perceives. But it works just as well when we think about the gap between the intention of the leader and the perception of the follower. Surprisingly, there’s very little written about this. Eales-White (2004) is a rare exception, and one that does a good job of helping us to understand what causes it, and what might be done about it. I’ve paraphrased his research to make this graphic, which really helped the leaders I was working with to understand how and why their communication gaps were occurring:

Once you can see which of the above are causing the perception gaps, you are a long way to solving them. Typical solutions that the delegates came up with were helping the follower to understand what makes you tick; recognising that stress can reduce your ability to communicate and mean that you need to be much clearer in your intentions; and important messages need communicating multiple times across multiple media (email, face-to-face, newsletter, meeting, individually, etc.)

To pick up on just one more key theme, which the delegates found really helpful, we talked about helping people at work to deal with you as you intend to be by sharing more of who you are and what makes you tick. This strays into the territory of Authentic Leadership (which says that we should all find out who we really are and channel that into the way that we lead). So, in keeping with that approach, we just thought about key things that others might need to know about you, such as whether you thrive on chaos or order; how you cope with stress; and how someone can tell if you’re busy.

The delegates found this very simple set of tools, and questions, very helpful and enlightening. Suddenly, they had a way to address misperceptions of them at work, and some areas that they could talk about in upcoming team meetings regarding what’s critical to them. By signposting who they are and what they value, not only do they bridge the perception gap, but they get their team members to do some of the work for them, by changing their behaviour to fit what the leader likes to see.

If you’d like to hear more about this piece of work and/or think about how it might apply to your setting, please get in touch.


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