The Perceptual Process

How do differences in perception affect employee behavior and performance?
By perception, we mean the process by which one screens, selects, organizes, and interprets stimuli to give them meaning.1 It is a process of making sense out of the environment in order to make an appropriate behavioral response. Perception does not necessarily lead to an accurate portrait of the environment, but rather to a unique portrait, influenced by the needs, desires, values, and disposition of the perceiver. As described by Kretch and associates,2 an individual’s perception of a given situation is not a photographic representation of the physical world; it is a partial, personal construction in which certain objects, selected by the individual for a major role, are perceived in an individual manner. Every perceiver is, as it were, to some degree a nonrepresentational artist, painting a picture of the world that expresses an individual view of reality.

External Influences on Selective Attention
External influences consist of the characteristics of the observed object or person that activate the senses. Most external influences affect selective attention because of either their physical properties or their dynamic properties.

Dynamic Properties. The second set of external influences on selective attention are those that either change over time or derive their uniqueness from the order in which they are presented. The most obvious dynamic property is motion. We tend to pay attention to objects that move against a relatively static background. This principle has long been recognized by advertisers, who often use signs with moving lights or moving objects to attract attention. In an organizational setting, a clear example is a rate-buster, who shows up his colleagues by working substantially faster, attracting more attention.

Another principle basic to advertising is repetition of a message or image. Work instructions that are repeated tend to be received better, particularly when they concern a dull or boring task on which it is difficult to concentrate. This process is particularly effective in the area of plant safety. Most industrial accidents occur because of careless mistakes during monotonous activities. Repeating safety rules and procedures can often help keep workers alert to the possibilities of accidents.

Personal Influences on Selective Attention
In addition to a variety of external factors, several important personal factors are also capable of influencing the extent to which an individual pays attention to a particular stimulus or object in the environment. The two most important personal influences on perceptual readiness are response salience and response disposition.

Response Salience. This is a tendency to focus on objects that relate to our immediate needs or wants. Response salience in the work environment is easily identified. A worker who is tired from many hours of work may be acutely sensitive to the number of hours or minutes until quitting time. Employees negotiating a new contract may know to the penny the hourly wage of workers doing similar jobs across town. Managers with a high need to achieve may be sensitive to opportunities for work achievement, success, and promotion. Finally, female managers may be more sensitive than many male managers to condescending male attitudes toward women. Response salience, in turn, can distort our view of our surroundings. For example, as Ruch notes:

“Time spent on monotonous work is usually overestimated. Time spent in interesting work is usually underestimated. . . . Judgment of time is related to feelings of success or failure. Subjects who are experiencing failure judge a given interval as longer than do subjects who are experiencing success. A given interval of time is also estimated as longer by subjects trying to get through a task in order to reach a desired goal than by subjects working without such motivation.”3

Response Disposition. Whereas response salience deals with immediate needs and concerns, response disposition is the tendency to recognize familiar objects more quickly than unfamiliar ones. The notion of response disposition carries with it a clear recognition of the importance of past learning on what we perceive in the present. For instance, in one study, a group of individuals was presented with a set of playing cards with the colors and symbols reversed—that is, hearts and diamonds were printed in black, and spades and clubs in red. Surprisingly, when subjects were presented with these cards for brief time periods, individuals consistently described the cards as they expected them to be (red hearts and diamonds, black spades and clubs) instead of as they really were. They were predisposed to see things as they always had been in the past.4

Thus, the basic perceptual process is in reality a fairly complicated one. Several factors, including our own personal makeup and the environment, influence how we interpret and respond to the events we focus on. Although the process itself may seem somewhat complicated, it in fact represents a shorthand to guide us in our everyday behavior. That is, without perceptual selectivity we would be immobilized by the millions of stimuli competing for our attention and action. The perceptual process allows us to focus our attention on the more salient events or objects and, in addition, allows us to categorize such events or objects so that they fit into our own conceptual map of the environment.

Which Car Would You Buy?
When General Motors teamed up with Toyota to form California-based New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI), they had a great idea. NUMMI would manufacture not only the popular Toyota Corolla but would also make a GM car called the Geo Prizm. Both cars would be essentially identical except for minor styling differences. Economies of scale and high quality would benefit the sales of both cars. Unfortunately, General Motors forgot one thing. The North American consumer holds a higher opinion of Japanese-built cars than American-made ones. As a result, from the start of the joint venture, Corollas have sold rapidly, while sales of Geo Prizms have languished.

With hindsight, it is easy to explain what happened in terms of perceptual differences. That is, the typical consumer simply perceived the Corolla to be of higher quality (and perhaps higher status) and bought accordingly. Not only was the Prizm seen more skeptically by consumers, but General Motors’ insistence on a whole new name for the product left many buyers unfamiliar with just what they were buying. Perception was that main reason for lagging sales; however, the paint job on the Prizm was viewed as being among the worst ever. As a result, General Motors lost $80 million on the Prizm in its first year of sales. Meanwhile, demand for the Corolla exceeded supply.

The final irony here is that no two cars could be any more alike than the Prizm and the Corolla. They are built on the same assembly line by the same workers to the same design specifications. They are, in fact, the same car. The only difference is in how the consumers perceive the two cars—and these perceptions obviously are radically different.

Over time, however, perceptions did change. While there was nothing unique about the Prizm, the vehicle managed to sell pretty well for the automaker and carried on well into the 2000s. The Prizm was also the base for the Pontiac Vibe, which was based on the Corolla platform as well, and this is one of the few collaborations that worked really well.

Sources: C. Eitreim, “10 Odd Automotive Brand Collaborations (And 15 That Worked),” Car Culture, January 19, 2019; R. Hof, “This Team-Up Has It All—Except Sales,” Business Week, August 14, 1989, p. 35; C. Eitreim, “15 GM Cars With The Worst Factory Paint Jobs (And 5 That’ll Last Forever),” Motor Hub, November 8, 2018.

Social Perception in Organizations
Up to this point, we have focused on an examination of basic perceptual processes—how we see objects or attend to stimuli. Based on this discussion, we are now ready to examine a special case of the perceptual process—social perception as it relates to the workplace. Social perception consists of those processes by which we perceive other people.5 Particular emphasis in the study of social perception is placed on how we interpret other people, how we categorize them, and how we form impressions of them.

Clearly, social perception is far more complex than the perception of inanimate objects such as tables, chairs, signs, and buildings. This is true for at least two reasons. First, people are obviously far more complex and dynamic than tables and chairs. More-careful attention must be paid in perceiving them so as not to miss important details. Second, an accurate perception of others is usually far more important to us personally than are our perceptions of inanimate objects. The consequences of misperceiving people are great. Failure to accurately perceive the location of a desk in a large room may mean we bump into it by mistake. Failure to perceive accurately the hierarchical status of someone and how the person cares about this status difference might lead you to inappropriately address the person by their first name or use slang in their presence and thereby significantly hurt your chances for promotion if that person is involved in such decisions. Consequently, social perception in the work situation deserves special attention.

We will concentrate now on the three major influences on social perception: the characteristics of (1) the person being perceived, (2) the particular situation, and (3) the perceiver. When taken together, these influences are the dimensions of the environment in which we view other people. It is important for students of management to understand the way in which they interact (see Exhibit 3.4).

The way in which we are evaluated in social situations is greatly influenced by our own unique sets of personal characteristics. That is, our dress, talk, and gestures determine the kind of impressions people form of us. In particular, four categories of personal characteristics can be identified: (1) physical appearance, (2) verbal communication, (3) nonverbal communication, and (4) ascribed attributes.

Physical Appearance. A variety of physical attributes influence our overall image. These include many of the obvious demographic characteristics such as age, sex, race, height, and weight. A study by Mason found that most people agree on the physical attributes of a leader (i.e., what leaders should look like), even though these attributes were not found to be consistently held by actual leaders. However, when we see a person who appears to be assertive, goal-oriented, confident, and articulate, we infer that this person is a natural leader.6 Another example of the powerful influence of physical appearance on perception is clothing. People dressed in business suits are generally thought to be professionals, whereas people dressed in work clothes are assumed to be lower-level employees.

Verbal and Nonverbal Communication. What we say to others—as well as how we say it—can influence the impressions others form of us. Several aspects of verbal communication can be noted. First, the precision with which one uses language can influence impressions about cultural sophistication or education. An accent provides clues about a person’s geographic and social background. The tone of voice used provides clues about a speaker’s state of mind. Finally, the topics people choose to converse about provide clues about them.

Impressions are also influenced by nonverbal communication—how people behave. For instance, facial expressions often serve as clues in forming impressions of others. People who consistently smile are often thought to have positive attitudes.7 A whole field of study that has recently emerged is body language, the way in which people express their inner feelings subconsciously through physical actions: sitting up straight versus being relaxed, looking people straight in the eye versus looking away from people. These forms of expressive behavior provide information to the perceiver concerning how approachable others are, how self-confident they are, or how sociable they are.

Ascribed Attributes. Finally, we often ascribe certain attributes to a person before or at the beginning of an encounter; these attributes can influence how we perceive that person. Three ascribed attributes are status, occupation, and personal characteristics. We ascribe status to someone when we are told that he or she is an executive, holds the greatest sales record, or has in some way achieved unusual fame or wealth. Research has consistently shown that people attribute different motives to people they believe to be high or low in status, even when these people behave in an identical fashion.8 For instance, high-status people are seen as having greater control over their behavior and as being more self-confident and competent; they are given greater influence in group decisions than low-status people. Moreover, high-status people are generally better liked than low-status people. Occupations also play an important part in how we perceive people. Describing people as salespersons, accountants, teamsters, or research scientists conjures up distinct pictures of these various people before any firsthand encounters. In fact, these pictures may even determine whether there can be an encounter.

Characteristics of the Situation
The second major influence on how we perceive others is the situation in which the perceptual process occurs. Two situational influences can be identified: (1) the organization and the employee’s place in it, and (2) the location of the event.

Organizational Role. An employee’s place in the organizational hierarchy can also influence his perceptions. A classic study of managers by Dearborn and Simon emphasizes this point. In this study, executives from various departments (accounting, sales, production) were asked to read a detailed and factual case about a steel company.9 Next, each executive was asked to identify the major problem a new president of the company should address. The findings showed clearly that the executives’ perceptions of the most important problems in the company were influenced by the departments in which they worked. Sales executives saw sales as the biggest problem, whereas production executives cited production issues. Industrial relations and public relations executives identified human relations as the primary problem in need of attention.