Everyone is painfully aware of the adage “perception is reality”. Unfortunately, that statement is even truer today with society’s thirst for gossip and misdeeds. Even a suggestion of impropriety leads people to assume the worst–sometimes falsifying the story to fill in unknown gaps. The real problem is people live for this type of juicy information. This is why shows like Jersey Shore, Real Housewives and other reality tv programs have such a huge following. In those instances, the cameras are essentially documenting the train wreck of ‘celebrity’ lives (I am using the term celebrity here very loosely). Maybe we, as a society, are in awe of the asinine behavior of people, or we are jealous of the lifestyle and luxuries afforded to the stars. Whatever the reason, people love gossip and rumor, and then perpetuate the story by telling it to others.
One glaring issue is that the gossip and rumor become hard fact very quickly. Once a bad story is spread around, it is incredibly tough to counter it with truth. For some reason, no one wants to hear the honest version. It could be that the real story is not as interesting or that the mystery and intrigue is just too much to let go. This is dangerous territory when it comes to teamwork and leadership. If the rumor or gossip concerns members of the same team or one member of the team, it can splinter and fracture the team in a heartbeat if not quelled quickly.
What if the story is true? Consider the recent news regarding an incredibly high-ranking military official; the juicy gossip is actually truth. None of the parties concerned are denying the fact that inappropriate behavior went on. Ironically, the underlying concern has nothing to do with infidelity but indiscretion of state secrets. The high -ranking official swore before Congress nothing classified was shared with his paramour, but that may not be enough. He is known to be a liar in one facet of his life; what makes his word worth anything now? The fact there was impropriety implies untrustworthiness. The perception regarding his behavior is that he may have shared more than a bed with his lover. This is a sad statement since the high-ranking official is probably one of the most honorable soldiers around.
That is the danger for leaders – falling off the pedestal. We are taught to set the example and do the right thing. That becomes the standard and the expectation of our behavior from our teams. In fact, it should be since that is a big part of leadership. However, we are still human, and we will all make mistakes. We have to be cognizant of our choices and how our eventual mistakes will be construed. By focusing on honesty, strength of character, open communication and being responsible, leaders may avoid the trap of perception. If we have consistent, truthful interactions with our teams, when we do stumble in our leadership skills, our team is more apt to believe the good story and defend us against the bad.
CEO, The Professional Development Team