I was having a conversation with someone in the telecommunications field the other day, and she was telling me that she has a new director for her department. Within minutes of starting their first one-on-one meeting, the director quickly explained that his leadership style was based on perception over reality.

What he meant was that how a direct report was perceived by his or her staff/peers mattered more to him than the reality.

In other words, he went on to say, he didn’t really care if you thought you were good. He only cared whether others thought it too. He didn’t really care whether you just thought you were direct. He only cared whether your directness hurt someone else’s perception of you.

I’m not sure whether this is a new tool in the corporate leadership arsenal, or just unique to this dude, but it led to an interesting discussion about perception versus reality when it comes to our careers.

Does Your Technical Career Hinge on Perception or Reality?

In the case of my telecom friend, her new boss was setting the ground rules. He wanted her to know that if he received a complaint about her management style from her staff or peers, he was going to believe it. And, essentially, it was up to her to fix it…even if the complaint was based more on the perception of one person or a couple of persons than on reality. (I have no idea what his plan is if some people say one thing about you and others disagree. I guess he will rank your reviews, much like Amazon and Google do. Congrats…you get 3 out of 5 stars!)

As a personal branding strategist, I think I “get” what he is saying. It is what a lot of social media/content marketing people are saying…you need people to like you (even if those people aren’t very good themselves)…because if they don’t like you, then you’re not good…even if you are. (If a tree falls in the forest, blah, blah, blah.)

Of course, after they say this, causing you to run all over the Internet begging for “likes” and “shares” so your Klout score will go up, they then say, “but just be yourself. Be authentic.” Isn’t it wonderful?

Can anyone say “it’s the confusing world of the 6th grade all over again?”

(When my telecom friend was telling me about this meeting with her new director, I did wonder whether this is how he parents his children: “If all the kids are saying you’re a loser, son, well, then that just must be true. It’s up to you to fix it.”)

In the case of this director, and apparently in the online personal branding world of today, perception is the reality.

Now, some might argue, that it has pretty much always been true. But with social media and the “branding” strategies being touted, it seems to be more acute.

Of course, my friend was a bit unsettled by this conversation (which I would assume was the new director’s point). [I really wished she had asked him whether this was the same standard by which she should judge him, but alas, she did not. :-)]

In his defense, he obviously cares a lot about “cultural fit” and is letting everyone know that he is placing that high on his list. And I’m guessing he picked up this strategy at some recent leadership conference, where it sounded so…smooth.

But, like most of these things, the truth comes out in the “reality” of the strategy in application, not in the “perception” of the theory.

It’s really nice to say that how a person is perceived by co-workers or across social media “says” something true about him or her. I mean, if a lot of people are saying it, then it must be true, right? (Yeah, kind of like how mob rule and mutinies are always “right” and “true.”) So, the argument goes, by being more sensitive to these perceptions, you are going to help create a better “culture” where people want to recommend you and work with you.

The problem, however, is that when these same directors and personal branding “experts” make these statements, they also somehow believe that the end result is going to be real, authentic.

In other words, the “experience” will be more authentic once everyone spends their every working second worrying about what everyone else thinks about them…er, what?

And of course, our businesses will thrive…our careers will soar…and we will just be so happy to work in a setting where perception is the reality. Right?

Hmmm. It is a pickle. But does it have to be?

Wouldn’t it be better to create a culture (corporate or otherwise) built on authentic, imperfect people who are considerate of other people’s perceptions of them but not consumed by them?

I mean, this way, you would really know whom you are working with? Results would matter more than likeability?

Yes, being recommendable or referable is a great thing, but do we only recommend people we like? I would much prefer people to recommend someone who is really good and can “show” it, not someone who goes around playing the perception game.

Sadly, however, most people like to play games.