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A Giant Spider on the Wall and Singing the Blues: How Perception Changes Everything

By September 7, 2011March 7th, 2016No Comments

In today’s blog we will explore how perception management can make or break a business or personal relationship.

Much of our success in managing life and global business comes down to perception. Several years ago I stayed for two weeks in a very basic monastery dorm room in Southern Thailand. One night at bedtime I climbed onto my mat and tucked in my mosquito net around me. Just as I was about to close my eyes I saw a spider on the wall – it was the size of a large man’s hand. I knew that my decision came down to perception management. I could choose to perceive the spider as a threat and run screaming from the room waking everyone else up, or I could accept its presence and just go to sleep. The spider remained the same no matter what I chose. I chose to go to bed. He never moved the whole night.

Years later perception management still fascinates me. As many of you know I help onshore/offshore teams build collaboration between India and the U.S. Not long ago Vantage Partners released a study ( saying that cultural differences posed the number one challenge to offshore contracts. I was not surprised, but here’s what did raise my eyebrows a bit: The challenges did not come so much from the cultural differences themselves, but in the way they were perceived by both offshore providers and their clients.

For example, customers in the U.S. overwhelmingly believe that their offshore provider tends to communicate indirectly. Providers interviewed, however, tend not to perceive those differences. After all, what is “indirectly?” For the providers in India or China, their communication approach seems natural. These perception misalignments  cause a loss in the offshore contract value, some customers reporting a loss greater than 30%. Perception then becomes reality.

I began to wonder if so much of what plagues us in global business is just a matter of aligning perceptions and expectations. This is not an easy task, and a recent business trip to Memphis, Tennessee proved that once again.

Blues music makes my heart and soul swoon, so when I found out I would be fifteen minutes from Beale St., the center of Memphis’s music scene I immediately set aside an evening for rocking out. Since I would be out late as a woman alone, I went on a couple of travel websites to make sure that the area was relatively safe. Before long, however, I was in the perception trap.

Descriptions and reviews of Beale St. ranged from “smelling like a urinal” and “filthy and not for families” to “everything I expected and more” and “music to my ears.”

I thought back to my time in Nepal where I spent a year living right under the glory of the mighty Himalayas. Many tourists that visited there described it as “dirty,” “poor,” or “fourth world.” Though living there drove me to tears from time to time, Nepal’s beauty and complex culture defied description. The streets, porches, and shops were always swept clean, and many of my colleagues had thriving businesses. Again, perception.

So I decided to go to Beale St. and I had the time of my life. I listened to live blues until midnight and let the sounds of guitars, bass, and harmonica permeate me for hours. I made sure I stayed in well-lit areas with lots of people, just as a common sense practice.

The question is, what do we do about this perception challenge? If perception misalignment is the ailment, than communication is the cure. Global teams must discuss not only processes and procedures, but how they are going to work together. They must design protocols around communication which include agreements they make as a team. They should ask the “W” questions (who, what, where, when, why) about cultural differences, project management, deadlines, and giving feedback. We can no longer afford to leave these aspects of teamwork to chance.

On an individual level we can check our perceptions consistently simply be being mindful of them on a regular basis. When they come up, we can acknowledge them as perceptions, and then ask inquiring questions: Is this true? Can I be 100% sure that it’s true? What evidence can I provide? How do I react toward my colleague when I have that perception? What options do I have for checking my perception? (These questions were adapted from Byron Katie’s The Work.)

Just remember the spider on the wall in Thailand. You may always choose how you perceive something, and how you seek to understand others’ perceptions of you.

Vicki Flier Hudson

Vicki Flier Hudson, Chief Collaboration Officer for Highroad Global Services, Inc. inspires people to leverage the full power of differences. She has helped countless large-sized corporations establish successful operations across the globe and build bridges across cultures, distance, and time.

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