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18 January 2019
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People only see what they want to see

22 June 2015 

I often talk about the difference between perception and reality, especially in terms of customer service, but it is true in so many ways – people do see or believe things even when there is evidence to the contrary, blogs John Bowen.


One of the classic illustrations is the Hans Christian Andersen tale of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, but I can think of several occasions where people who know me reasonably well have met me somewhere else in a different context and have not recognised me.


One example of this was our group MD, whom I had met many times in our own offices and at other venues around the country. One winter, we ran a big evening event at one of our sites and it was due to finish around 10pm. It was bitterly cold, but with so many strangers we needed a visible security presence to make sure everyone got away and I went in to help and to give my guys a break.


Wearing my hi-viz thermal security jacket, I was chatting with the MD’s driver outside reception as the boss emerged to head off back to London. We walked to his car together chatting and as I held his car door open he told me to get off indoors for a warm-up. I met him again in head office a couple of days later and he told me what he had said to my ‘security guard’ and asked how often I rotated the guys on a night like that so that they didn’t spend too long in the cold. I didn’t let on.


People see what they want to see with systems and processes too and are especially prone to this when it is a system that they have been involved with devising. As long as things appear to work as they are intended to do, folks are content and they relax – what could go wrong now that they have a system in place?


However, such systems or processes often have not been rigorously tested in the first place, they contain basic flaws that allow them to be manipulated and there is rarely any later testing done once they are up and running.


It is said that in conversation people only hear about 25 per cent of what is said and that their mind fills in the blanks (my wife will tell you that 25 per cent is a generous estimate). And in the same way that we listen but do not hear, we also tend to look and yet do not see beyond what we expect to see.


The old adage familiarity breeds contempt is very relevant here because we become complacent about the things that we have put in place and most of us we will get away with it. But every now and again, someone will find that their system or process fails and, if they are lucky, it will be in an area that is not business-critical. For some, though, the clanger that is dropped will reverberate around the organisation and the repercussions will be severe.


For the things that are important you should never stop pushing, probing, testing and making improvements. You may never make them perfect. In fact that is probably not possible, but you reduce your chances of failure considerably.


John Bowen is an FM consultant