I was walking down a busy street the other day and two men were just behind me. I overheard a portion of their conversation and it went like this. One of the men said “So I went with my Dad to pick up some custom tailored shirts. I had no idea what he was going to spend on the shirts and really had not thought much about it. The tailor comes out with three shirts and says that will be $1200.00. $1200.00!” he exclaims. I remained in earshot and then I hear the man proceed to explain why this appalled him. The man continues and says “I can’t believe what a jerk he is spending $1200.00 on three shirts when I have been struggling to feed my kids; some weeks we have had to survive on $20.00.” I wait to hear what the other man is going to say when they both veer off left down a side street. I keep walking toward my destination still processing the conversation in my mind. Let me add that the street I was walking down was lined with ocean front high rises in a very wealthy part of south Florida. I had gotten a glimpse of the men as they walked away. I wasn’t sure which one was speaking but the both were well dressed and clean cut. I wondered how they knew each other, what had sparked the need for the man to share his frustrations, and where was he going with this story. I would never know.
It was obvious from the tone of the man’s voice that he felt that his Dad should have helped him during his struggles and that seeing him spend that much money on clothes really irritated him. Later on that evening I was sitting on the 16th floor balcony of one of those high rise hotels I mentioned earlier. From the 16th floor the whole world looks different. As I look out over the ocean I can see for miles. My entire perspective changes from up here. I look out onto the ocean and I see shades of blue and pink. I see life and peace. When I turn my gaze to the sky I see white against blue as a seaplane passed by. But when I look down I see something entirely different, I see danger. I see the opportunity for falling off this balcony, I see cars zooming by, and I see alleyways. As I gaze down my mind fills with too many Hollywood dramas where desperate actors fling themselves off tall buildings. For me the analogy is this, when I look down I tend to feel down. When I keep my head up and I look straight ahead I feel powerful. This brought my thoughts back to the man who was struggling to understand why his father would indulge himself rather than lend a hand to his son. Since I do not know the whole story I will just speculate. Maybe the son had never asked, maybe the father did help the son and the son felt like he deserved more. Maybe the father was teaching him a lesson. Whatever the case may be, the son was now left to determine the role he wanted to play in this story. He could look up and forward determined to never be in that situation again or he could look down and remain angry and resentful of his father.
In our professional lives we all have these same experiences. The details are just different. It is not a father son scenario but a peer to peer or perhaps a boss to associate relationship. One person has taken the 16th floor balcony view while the other has taken the street level view; extremely different perspectives. I received an email from an associate one day that said “Since you called me out in the last meeting I thought I would get this document over to you to review”. My first reaction was “I didn’t call you out in the meeting”. My recollection was I used this person’s deliverable as an example, they however thought I used them as an example. In this case the person decided to look up and see this as an opportunity to show me what they were capable of. They could have chosen to look down and been resentful about how they perceived my comments. A person’s perception is immensely important. It does not matter what the truth is if the person perceives it differently until you talk about it and come to an agreement; perception will always trump truth.
So much of what we spend our energies on in organizational leadership is assuming intent of others. I argue that a lot of us are guilty of spending more time walking around looking at life from the street level. We act like the guy I heard on the street, holding a grudge and looking for validation of our feelings from others. The lesson for me is when I find myself acting that way to step back and look at the situation from the 16th floor. The facts are not any different from that view, but my perception is. For me it is a constant work in progress to hold myself accountable for how I view things that happen to me. We probably all have our own “three shirts for $1200.00” story and how we felt justified to carry that resentment around. The question is what are we doing with these stories. Do we wake up each day, pack them in our backpack and lug them around with us or do we look straight ahead with hope and learn from them. That is what I love about life, so much of how I see things is left entirely up to me.