Lessons in Perception

Lessons in Perception

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.
— Aldous Huxley

At some point in time, you were probably told as a child that you should never judge a book by its cover. This was your first lesson in perception.

As curious social creatures, we are constantly forming new opinions and impressions of others. You’ve probably been told to “make a good impression” before, right? Whether you care or give zero effs what others think of you, at some point perception is going to impact you in some way. We rely on the judgment of others often — when looking for a place to live, going on a first date, interviewing for jobs, and so many other facets of life.

The workplace in particular is no stranger to perception. For me, this was a particular pain point. My outgoing personality has both helped and hurt me throughout my life. Remember the kid who couldn’t sit still and always got in trouble for talking in class? Well, that kid grew up, got a job and learned a lesson or two in perception.

Perception #1: Employees who work long hours are better at their jobs.

I was fresh out of college when my first boss in the corporate world taught me a very valuable lesson. I still remember the way she ushered me into Benjamin Franklin — conference rooms were named after famous people throughout history — and said something like…

“I noticed that you left around 5:30 yesterday. I would try to avoid leaving that early in the future.”

I was more confused than argumentative. “But doesn’t the work day end at 5? What if I’m done with my work?”

“Technically speaking…but nobody actually leaves on time. Just sit at your desk for an hour or two and play around on Facebook. Trust me, the right people will notice. I’m just looking out for you.”

And she was. This conversation wasn’t the result of a strict boss, but more so a cultural wakeup call. That day I learned the major role that perception plays in the corporate environment. Employees who arrived early, stayed late, worked weekends (and made sure everyone knew it) were consistently rewarded. Anyone who complained about work-life balance was just seen as entitled or less committed to the job.

Since then, I’ve seen this behavior at several organizations and it has never made sense to me. It’s a proven fact that both productivity and job satisfaction decrease when employees are overworked, yet employers continue to celebrate (and usually promote) the late-night emailers and weekend warriors.

Perception #2: Your office friendships determine your dedication.

Not only did I hate staying in the office late, but also deeply valued my lunch and coffee breaks. I know that doesn’t sound ideal when time is money, but hear me out:

I’m a creative person. Unfortunately, things like writer’s block and feeling uninspired are very real. There is nothing inspiring to me about a gray cube, white walls and the sterile sound of fluorescent lighting; I thrive on little breaks and changes of scenery to help refuel creatively.

Of course, this particular habit did not go unnoticed. In my next gig, my manager observed that I took a daily coffee break with a few of my office pals. These particular friends were not on my specific team, but still worked for the same organization. When she brought up our caffeine runs, I thought for sure she was going to complain about it taking time away from my work. But rather…

You really should consider going to get coffee with members of your own team instead. They could start feeling alienated. Besides, it looks good to the execs when they see us building relationships with our teammates.”

In the weeks that followed that conversation, my office besties and I would sneak out of opposite exits, take separate elevators, and meet around the corner of the building…all to avoid my boss seeing us getting coffee together. Funny jokes about our “friendship affair” aside, this taught me another important lesson about perception.

Regardless of your behavior in the office, you are still likely to be judged outside of the office as well. People do go through times when personal stress makes it hard to focus at work, and that makes total sense. That said, it is nobody’s business how or with whom you choose to spend your time.

Perception #3: If you have fun at work, you aren’t being productive.

Maybe the solution wasn’t to spend less time in the office, but to find little ways to make the workplace more fun. Trouble followed me there too. I found my way to a smaller company, thinking maybe the environment would be more relaxed. It was actually the opposite. In a small office, people notice literally everything. I can still hear the sound of my fingers on the keys, trying to type as quietly as possible so I wouldn’t disturb my coworkers. I had to find a way to break up that silence because it was unbearable for me. Minutes felt like hours.

Slowly but surely, the environment livened up. Surprisingly, my coworkers welcomed the culture change. At first it was just small talk, sharing silly memes, lunches in the office break room; nevertheless, over time we became a pretty tight-knit group. Inside jokes flew through the tiny office, laughter echoed across the once-quiet space…and with it came a happier team that didn’t mind putting in the extra hours. Until…

“We love you here! We did notice that you’re pretty chatty and laugh a lot. They asked that we keep the fun to a minimum when we’re at work. You know what they say…perception is 9/10 of the law. Whatever that means.”

What exactly does that mean? My boss went on to explain that any talk outside of the industry topic was considered wasted time by the head of the company. Even small talk was pretty frowned upon. Being that the company was privately owned, that was his right. It just made going to work every day a lot less pleasant.

Perception #4: If you skip company events, you’re not a team player.

Work wasn’t a place for fun, but I was supposed to be friends with my teammates and also show face regularly in the office. When was I supposed to build said relationships? I’ll tell you the two words I dreaded the most: happy hour.

I know I probably sound boring as hell, but I’m honestly just an introvert. I love socializing during the day, but find it drains me and I need time to unwind in the evening. This is sacred time spent at home by myself, and certainly not out in a loud bar after a long day in the office. However, it seemed that other folks welcomed these outings and even requested them. I’ve tried multiple ways of (respectfully) turning down these offers, but the response was always the same.

“Why don’t you ever want to go out? You always flake! And everyone else is going. It might not look good if you’re the only one who doesn’t…”

More often than not, I still said no and went home because I know that personally I need that time to decompress. The weeks with back-to-back work obligations in the evening were the worst, and I found myself feeling super burned out by the time Friday finally rolled around. Instead, I opted to save my energy for things I found more productive, like leading brainstorms, writing thought leadership, or even just learning more about the industry. During times when I was (mostly) satisfied with my work-life balance, I was significantly more productive accomplishing tasks like these.

There is an optical illusion about every person we meet.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

No matter how much I struggled to adapt to the corporate culture, I never seemed to get it quite right. Misconceptions aside, here are a few truths:

· My work never suffered as a result of my work style.

· I’ve made lifelong friends at each place I’ve worked.

· Deadlines are not (and never have been) a problem.

· My actual managers have always asked me to stay.

And ultimately this: I spent more time worrying about these perceptions of me than on delivering my best creative work.

I’ve come to accept that for me personally, freelance/remote gigs probably just make the most sense. This isn’t meant to be a dig at any former employers or even at corporate life in general. It’s simply my observation –or should I say my perception — of the corporate culture, as it exists today.

But then again, you know what they say about perception…