Are you who you think you are?

Col Karl McGregor

Col Karl McGregor

03/11/2011 -- Accurate self-perception and managing your expectations are two of the most important components of a successful career, but they are also two of the most difficult to achieve. Let's start with the basics.

First, perception is reality. Second, everyone has their own perception; therefore, their own reality. Third, some people's reality doesn't match that of the majority. Fourth, it's hard to manage expectations, if there's a perception-reality mismatch.

Each of us has a specific perception of who we are, and our actions are based on that perception. At times, these perceptions are a close match for how others see us, but this is not always the case. When our self-perceptions are out of touch with how others see us, it can create very real conflict.

Symptoms of this affliction often occur for the first time during feedback or appraisal sessions, when the difference in perception of performance and behavior is discussed. This situation develops when the supervisor describes events, performance and behavior and the subordinate completely disagrees with the assessment.

These cases usually lead, in some form, into the complaint system for resolution and often become emotional. When emotions come into play, it makes for a very difficult resolution, usually because both sides are absolutely convinced they are in the right.

So how can we better manage perception?

Early, honest, continuous feedback
The common cure is early, honest and continuous feedback, both to and from the member, and sometimes on a daily basis.

Furthermore, feedback needs to include specific expectations. This feedback loop ensures open communications in order to build a trust relationship. This trust relationship opens the door to positive feedback and is where expectations can be set.

Here, it is important to note there are good and bad methods of feedback delivery. Good methods adhere to the rules of honesty and respect and remove emotion from the discussion. They simply deliver a coherent message.

An example of this kind of message would be something along the lines of, "I value what you bring to the team in the areas we've already discussed, but I think some of your behavior and performance in other areas needs attention. Here are some instances of the good and bad performance I've noted and here's what I think needs to be done for improvement. What do you think?"

Once the message is delivered, open the conversation for feedback. This allows communication to flow in both directions. However, you must remember to stick to the message. Keep the emotion out and really listen. If you are the one receiving the feedback, listen carefully and ask questions for clarification. Never argue, but do inject facts into the discussion if you believe they are different than what is being presented.

A good technique when you are the one who is receiving the feedback is to take notes during the discussion and allow a period of time for the message to internalize.

You can discuss the message with others in order to gain perspective, but be cautious of whom you choose as a sounding board. Afterward, develop a plan to incorporate the feedback into your behavior in the work environment.

Remember the intent is to build a common ground without washing out the diverse experiences that make an organization strong.

A quick word of caution on delivering feedback upward (employee to supervisor) is the employee is not generally in a position to know what the expectations are from their supervisor's supervisor, so stick to what's relevant at your level. Supervisors are graded on their abilities by their next level supervisor and this is not usually a communication shared downward.

Managing expectations
We all know that not every member of the wing will move up to become the wing commander, wing command chief or even a section supervisor; however, the opportunity for advancement is often an inherent expectation. How then does one manage the expectation for advancement against the limited number of available positions?

In my experience, the best way to ensure maximized potential is to work hard in your current position, keep a positive attitude and prepare yourself for future opportunities, while at the same time knowing your personal limitations. Those who have a realistic view of their capabilities, a record of sustained excellent performance, have completed PME, CCAF, technical courses, supervisory courses and completed other degrees tend to have better selection rates when openings occur.

In this wing, we make every attempt to utilize an open and fair process for selection. There will be no closed door sessions or good old boy networks to determine succession.

On the civil service side, competition is rigorous through Air Force Personnel Command and a vetting process driven by law. For military members who wish to be considered for top leadership positions, a board makes the determination through a records review and interview process. If you interview and are not selected, expect direct feedback on why you weren't selected and on ways to improve your chances next cycle.

Remember, in most cases, the talent pool is extensive and very small differences separate the candidates. When managing expectations during this process, it is important to understand the board and hiring official are usually looking for a particular type of candidate to fill a perceived need in the section or squadron. It is not always the "best candidate" that is selected, but the "best fit candidate." Be prepared and plan on selection, but stay positive and trust the process if not selected.

Continually strive to better yourself
Perception and expectations are the bottom line: if multiple people tell you you're out of touch with reality, then you probably are and it's time for a personal assessment. Be happy and adept at your current level, but never fail to prepare and reach for the next step. Be ready for the next step, but not disheartened if not selected--keep trying. Life is about achieving, and achieving is about continually striving to better ourselves.

So, continuously seek feedback to induce personal growth and validate you're in step with organizational goals. The system thrives on unique and diverse points of view and values our differences, as long as "unique" and "diverse" do not equate to disruptive. The workplace is a society of individuals working toward common goals and works best when everyone is united toward common expectations.

In the simplest terms, our goals are to safely fly KC-135s and C-17s and to prepare our members for successful deployment. Our expectations are for a level playing field with fair and equitable treatment for all.