Career Employment Strategies

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Power of Personal Perception

I was consulted to facilitate a seminar on diversity to a group of managers in the UK some time ago. With it being on human resource management and the treatment of diverse people in the workplace, I adopted my usual approach to check out perceptions. Plastic bag in hand, with a deliberate air of nonchalance, vulnerability and professionalism, I gingerly approached the receptionist at the venue. I asked for my contact and, while I waited for her, I explained that I was there for a seminar but deliberately did not say in what capacity.

The receptionist looked me up and down carefully, then pointed out that there were three seminars taking place that day. One was on diversity management for managerial staff, but that would not apply to me (she seemed certain); one was for technology staff which would not be for me, either, and the third was for local business advisors. Surprisingly, without even bothering to check whether I could have been an advisor, she naturally assumed that seminar would have no relevance to me at all. The amazing response was that she was perplexed as to which one it could be because none of them appeared 'suitable'. Had I got the right day, she queried helpfully?

She was so firm in her perception of who I could be, having formed her value judgement based on my gender, colour and appearance, she did not even bother to quiz me in any way. As polite as she was, she hastily sent me to wait for my contact and got on with her business. As luck would have it, she was one of the managers in my seminar. When she came into the room later on and saw me delivering my presentation, the look on her face was priceless. I have to hand it to her, though. When I began to talk about perception and how it affects our treatment of others, she readily told the group, rather sheepishly, that, without any precedence of a Black facilitator, she did not see me in that capacity. Knowing I wasn't a member of staff, she said it did not occur to her that I could actually be the trainer. Coming from the proverbial horse's mouth, it was an unforgettable admission.

For my part, I took being a consultant trainer for granted. Having been a pioneer in the subject areas I practise in, personnel development has been an integral part of my life and thus the norm for me. Often I did not stop to think that my role would be unusual to others who hadn't experienced it because we can never see ourselves as others see us. We so easily take it for granted that, just because we are part of the human race, we automatically share the reality of others, share their perspectives and, above all, share their perceptions. But we don't. That woman, being White, was judging me on the basis of her background, her colour and her experience. A natural thing to do. I was doing the same from my perception and expectations as a Black woman. As they were different from hers, not surprisingly, we did not meet in the middle.

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