Have you ever stopped to think about how your perceptions of any given institution are formed? By institution, I mean anything from an organization, group, idea, person, legislation, or even religion. Most of us are quick to form our opinions, but how informed are those opinions?
I really started contemplating this toward the beginning of my service in the Army years ago. At one point, I was experiencing what I considered an unwarranted amount of pressure from a few individuals I worked with. As a result, I started forming a negative perception of the organization until I caught myself. I reasoned that the Army had hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and I was letting the two or three that were representing the Army to me influence the majority of my perception of the organization as a whole. Wouldn’t it be better to get a more comprehensive perspective?
Since then, I’ve come to realize that people are much more likely to be influenced (either toward or away) based on their personal experiences than the certifiable facts. And while mindsets, traditions, and policies may play a role, experiences involving people who represent the institution, for better or worse, often play the major deciding factor. To take it a step further, most of the time we unintentionally let ourselves be significantly influenced by a relatively small – even minuscule – number of people.
Think about it – no matter how large your company is, your supervisor will play an enormous role in your perception of that organization. You may not know a lot about your next door neighbor’s particular religious persuasions, but your perceptions will likely be significantly influenced by the way he interacts with you – or how he maintains his yard or his pets. And even though you may have researched the latest candidate to run for election, a rude or insensitive remark from an oblivious supporter can make you question whether you want to be on the same side as “those people.”
The implications of all of this are two-fold and they go hand-in-hand: we need to learn to be tough on ourselves but easy on others.
Be tough on yourself
When we are tough on ourselves, we are able to step back from our gut reaction to a negative experience and realize that most of the time, it would be rash to form a concrete judgment of any institution based on an a single experience with a limited number of people. In other words, we need to prepare ourselves to give out second chances. Many times the next supervisor after a bad one is a great one. Maybe you just happened to reach a customer service representative in the midst of a crisis and the rest of your interactions will be wonderful – hardly worth the trouble of switching accounts. Suspending judgment and giving second chances can often provide a more informed perspective – and minimize rash decisions or actions that in the end aren’t worth the headache.
Be easy on others
On the other hand, we’ve got to realize that, like it or not, we are actually ambassadors for every institution we represent (again: organization, affiliation, idea, etc.). Everything we say and do has the potential to win or lose each person we knowingly or unknowingly come into contact with. Many times we are completely unaware of their history or current disposition with those institutions – whether they are full of goodwill, open to positive influence, on the verge of disaffiliation, or completely hostile. This may seem a tall order, but there is a big difference between trying to sway each person we touch and simply acknowledging the reality of influence. By accepting this responsibility, we agree to behave like the kinds of people we ought to be already: people who possess character, respect, and relational agility.
At the end of the day, don’t you want to affiliate with the best possible institutions out there? The people around you are going to be positively influenced by someone. Why shouldn’t it be you?
Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader. Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or follow him on Twitter.