Today, I am going to talk about something which affects all of us; In the workplace, at home, and in life in general. For the focus point of this article, I will relate it to IT, testing, and projects specifically.

Perception in the workplace is something that I have personally had good and bad experiences with, and it is from these learnings, experiences, and from researching online and in self-improvement books, that I can talk about this topic.

So, what is perception?

Therein lies the problem, the definition of perception differs from person to person, but my take on it is this:

Perception is the reality of how the observer’s eye sees you and your actions.

Why am I writing about this?

As professionals in the workplace, how we are perceived is crucial to our roles, relationships, and what image we present to others. Soft skills are the hardest of all to work on, and it is these skills that can ultimately make or break our careers.

How do we measure perception and how we may be observed by our peers, managers, and beyond?

Let’s compare behaviours like:

How much time do you spend:

  • Being an outlook warrior?
  • Making phone calls?
  • Reading and writing blogs?
  • Checking Forums?
  • On Facebook/Twitter?
  • Talking about non-work related topics?
  • Going out to get coffee?
  • Using an IM service such as Skype?

We all do some of the above, but the question is… where is the line drawn? Also, have we gone too far?

Now, how much time do you spend:

  • Discussing important work related problems and finding solutions?
  • At your desk, working at what you do?
  • Helping and offering to help others in the work they do?
  • Adding value in other areas of the project?
  • Going above and beyond in your duties?

These are all related to time spent, and what people observe in your behaviour… but what about attitude at work?

  • When there are important team discussions, stand-ups, meetings, reviews, how much do you get involved?
  • Do you attempt to abuse your position of power (if you are in one)?
  • When you are dealing with people who you consider to be poor at their jobs, or people who you don’t like or respect, does your tone of voice reveal your feelings?
  • What does your body language say about how you feel or what you’re thinking?
  • How do you speak with your peers and team members when interacting with them?
  • Do you put work as a priority over non-work related issues when you are dealing with both?
  • If you have a problem from home, do you bring it to work with you?
  • Do you let your emotions control how you interact, lead, and respond?

These are the toughest questions to ask ourselves, and because we are human beings… these are the hardest skills to master. But one or all of the above will impact other’s perception of you.

How does perception affect us?

Warped perceptions can have a devastating effect on your employer or project’s view. Once people have a perception of you that isn’t favourable, everything you do from that moment on may be blown out of proportion. People who don’t like you, will make everything you do, look far worse than it is.

Your raising bugs will put them back many hours, a funny email will become “highly offensive”, having a good chat with team mates will be seen as a distraction, and your work environment will become increasingly stressful and you will not enjoy coming to work.

How do we manage perception?

Underneath all of this, if you are doing your job and doing it well, then that is the simplest way of managing perception to begin with. If you’re seen continually at your desk, people won’t think that you’re taking extra breaks. If your screen isn’t continually populated with forums, facebook, twitter, blogs, news.com.au, etc, etc… people won’t think that you’re wasting time.

Here are some fantastic examples of how to have a better perception and to fix a relationship issue at work:

  • Phone calls: Avoid taking and making personal phone calls at work. If you absolutely must, try to do it in your break or in a quiet room and keep it short. If you have some major crisis in your personal life… then choose to either:
  • a) leave work and go home to deal with it
  • b) advise your team that you have something important to deal with, that you will cause minimal disruption, and will make up any time lost
  • Passive-Aggressive behaviour: I have personally had this happen in a bug report. A developer took bugs and the project’s decisions so personally, that he proceeded to write an epic comment (accompanied by the spitting of a dummy) rather than spend the time to fix the bug… all over a word in 1 out of 3 places  that something was mentioned, having being typed incorrectly by me as a tester. The comment was deleted, but an email notification was sent, and it couldn’t be undone.

This can be in many forms: Comments out loud, emails, jokes, etc. It’s bad practice, unprofessional and quite frankly, behaving like a child throwing a tantrum.

  • Personality clashes: So, something has happened. Something you have done/said/not done has upset somebody. You may have an issue with them, they may have an issue with you, or both. Don’t make a rookie mistake (been there, believe me) by letting it fester or not fixing it. Take the person aside, down for coffee, or what it takes to find out what the problem actually is. It may surprise you! Most people are very receptive to fixing a problem at work. Also, don’t make another rookie mistake (also been there) of having no patience or jumping the gun. If someone says, “Not now, but later”… listen to them. Sometimes giving someone the time they need until they are ready to meet with you can be more effective. Above all, be mature.
  • Going on the defence and dealing with feedback: Don’t make the mistake (I’m sure as we all have in our careers) of defiantly justifying your position if someone has the courtesy to come to you and talk about what they feel you are doing wrong. Don’t then point out what everyone else is doing to again justify your right to do the same. Give the person the respect of listening, take it on the chin, and put yourself in a better position by finding solutions to those issues. It will better you as a professional. It may seem unfair, it may even be unjust in your eyes… but more often than not, there is truth in perception… and if you are managing it properly, there wouldn’t be an issue to begin with.
  • Do your hours! Be punctual! – Whether you are a contractor or a permanent employee, it’s all the same. If you don’t do your hours, people WILL notice. If you take continual breaks, people WILL notice. If you come to work earlier, you are certainly entitled to leave earlier… but if you spend half your day on personal stuff, make up the time.

We are professionals who want to better ourselves in every way, right? So look yourself honestly in the eye and ask yourself… how are you being perceived? Are you doing the best job that you can? Are you being proactive?

I have made plenty of mistakes in my career with perception, as I am sure that we all have… but what separates us from the pack is when we better ourselves, step up and improve ourselves… we *earn* the right to win over people’s perceptions. It will not happen overnight, but it WILL happen (no shampoo, really).

Seriously folks, if you genuinely care about what people think of you, your career, and your work, spend the time to better your perception… the rewards and benefits associated are worth it.

By Peter Koevari, Senior Consultant, Revolution IT

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