Human Resource Development (HRM-627)
Perception is a process by which individuals give meaning to their environment by organizing and interpreting
their sensory impressions. Research on perception consistently demonstrates that individuals may look at the
same thing yet perceive it differently. One manager, for instance, can interpret the fact that her assistant
regularly takes several days to make important decisions as evidence that the assistant is slow, disorganized, and
afraid to make decisions. Another manager with the same assistant might interpret the same tendency as
evidence that the assistant is thoughtful, thorough, and deliberate. The first manger would probably evaluate
her assistant negatively; the second manager would probably evaluate the person positively. The point is that
none of us sees reality. We interpret what we see and call it reality. And, of course, as the example shows, we
behave according to our perception.
FACTORS THAT INFLUENCE PERCEPTION
How do we explain the fact that people can perceive the same thing differently? A number of factors act to
shape and sometimes distort perception. These factors can reside in the perceiver; in the object, or target, being
perceived; or in the context of the situation in which perception occurs.
The Perceiver: when an individual looks at a target and attempts to interpret what he or she sees, the
individual personal characteristics will heavily influence the interpretation. These personal characteristics
include attitudes, personality, motives, interests, experiences and expectations.
The Target: the characteristics of the target being observed can also affect what's perceived. Loud people are
more likely than quiet people to be noticed in a group. So, too, are extremely attractive or unattractive
individuals. Because targets aren't looked at in isolation, the relationship of a target to its background also
influences perception, as does our tendency to group close things and similar things together.
The Situation: the context in which we see objects or events is also important. The time at which an object or
event is seen can influence attention, as can location, light, heat, color, and any number of other situational
Much of the research on perception is directed at inanimate objects. Managers, though, are more concerned
with people. Our discussion of perception, therefore, should focus on how we perceive people.
Our perception of people differ from our perceptions of inanimate objects because we make inferences about
the behaviors of people that we don't make about objects. Objects don't have beliefs, motives, or intensions;
people do. The result is that when we observe an individuals behavior, we try to develop explanations of why
they behave in certain ways. Our perception and judgment of a person's action, therefore, will be significantly
influenced by assumptions we make about the person.
Attribution theory was developed to explain how we judge people differently depending on the meaning we
attribute to a given behavior. Basically, the theory suggests that when we observe an individual's behavior, we
attempt to determine whether it was internally or externally caused. Internally caused behaviors are those that
are believed to be under the personal control of the individual. Externally caused behavior results from outside
factors; that is, the person is forced into the behavior by the situation. The determination, however, depends on
three factors: distinctiveness, consensus, and consistency.
Distinctiveness refers to whether an individual displays a behavior in many situations or whether it's particular
to one situation. Is the employee who arrives late today the same person that some employees are complaining
is a `good-off?'
What we want to know is whether this behavior is unusual. If it's unusual, the observer is likely to attribute the
behavior to external forces, something beyond the control of the person. However, if the behavior isn't
unusual, it will probably be judged as internal.
If everyone who's faced with a similar situation responds in the same way, we can say the behavior shows
consensus. A tardy employee's behavior would meet this criterion if all employees who took the same route to
work were also late. From an attribution perspective, if consensus is high, you're likely to give an external
attribution to the employee's tardiness; that is, some outside factor maybe road construction or a traffic
Human Resource Development (HRM-627)
accident caused the behavior. However, if other employees who come the same way to work made it on time,
you would conclude that the cause of the late behavior was internal.
Finally, an observer looks for consistency in a person's actions. Does the person engage in the behaviors
regularly and consistently? Does the person respond the same way over time? Coming in 10 minutes late for
work isn't perceived in the same way if, for one employee, it represents an unusual case (she hasn't been late in
months), while for another employee, it's part of a routine pattern (she's late two or three times every week).
The more consistent the behavior, the more the observer is inclined to attribute it to internal causes.
One of the most interesting findings from the attribution theory is that are errors or biases that distort
attribution. For instance, there's substantial evidence to support the fact that when we make judgments about
the behavior of other people, we have a tendency to underestimate the influence of external factors and to
overestimate the influence of internal or personal factors. This tendency is called the fundamental attribution
error and can explain why a sales manager may be prone to attribute the poor performance of her sales
representative to laziness rather than to the innovative product line introduced by a competitor. There's also a
tendency for individuals to attribute their own success to internal factors such as ability or effort while putting
the blame for performance failure on external factors such as luck. This tendency is called self-serving bias and
suggests that feedback provided to employees in performance reviews will be predictably distorted by them
depending on whether it's positive or negative.
Shortcuts Frequently Used in Judging Others
We use a number of shortcuts when we judge others. Perceiving and interpreting what others do is a lot of
work. As a result, individuals develop techniques for making the task more manageable. These techniques are
frequently valuable; they let us make accurate perceptions rapidly and provide valid data for making predictions.
However, they aren't perfect. They can and do let us get into trouble. An understanding of these shortcuts can
be helpful for recognizing when they can result in significant distortions.
Individuals cannot assimilate all they observe, so they engage in selectivity. They take in bits and pieces of the
vast amounts of stimuli bombarding their senses. These bits and pieces aren't chosen randomly; they are
selectively chosen depending on the interests, background, experience, and attitudes of the observer. Selective
perception allows us to "speed read" others but not without the risk of being inaccurate.
It's easy to judge others if we assume that they're similar to us. In assumed similarity, or the "like me" effect,
the observer's perception of others is influenced more by the observer's own characteristics than by those of
the person observed. For example, if you want challenges and responsibilities in your job, you'll assume that
others want the same. People who assume that others are like them can, of course, be right, but most of the
time they're wrong.
When we judge someone on the basis of our perception of a group he or she is part of, we're using the
shortcut called stereotyping. For instance, "married people are more stable employees than single persons" and
"union people expect something for nothing" are examples of stereotyping. To a degree that a stereotype is
based on fact, it may produce accurate judgments. However, many stereotypes have no foundation in fact. In
such cases, stereotyping distorts judgment.
When we form a general impression about a person on the basis of a single characteristic, such as intelligence,
sociability, or appearance, we're being influenced by the halo effect. This effect frequently occurs when
students evaluate their classroom instructor. Students may isolate a single trait such as enthusiasm and allow
their entire evaluation to be slanted by the perception of this one trait. An instructor may be quiet, assured,
knowledgeable, and highly qualified, but if his classroom teaching style lacks enthusiasm, he might be rated
lower on a number of other characteristics.
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