Deeply embedded in nearly everyone are some similar core values like integrity, fairness, justice, and equality: granted each of us understands them differently. These values get “tucked” into our beliefs, which are impacted by a variety of things including influential people and life experiences. Additionally, we carry mental models which color our perceptions of the world. For example, if I perceive a child being hit by an adult, my values and beliefs regarding child abuse will cause me to behave in a certain way. In this case, my heart rate and spatial attentiveness may increase, and I will likely try to stop the adult from further harming the child.

Our Personal Values and Beliefs Shape Our Perceptions

To bring this into the workplace, let’s imagine I value my ability to make quick decisions and take decisive action. My belief about you is that you take way too much time to make decisions and send me long emails (sometimes two paragraphs!). You also speak slowly and frequently don’t get to the point for quite a while. In other words, working with you is often frustrating.

Now let’s say yesterday you sent me one of your long emails. I was in a hurry so I didn’t take the time to read the whole thing—thus not responding when you wanted me to. Today I’m walking down the hallway at work and I perceive you walking towards me. What do I do? Without thinking I turn and walk in a different direction, completely avoiding you. In other words, without being consciously aware of it, my value for quick action and belief that you don’t share that value, at all, triggers an immediate behavior when I perceive you walking towards me.

Now I’m going to bring you into the picture. You perceive me walking towards you and then see me turn and walk the other way. You have already observed that I did not respond to your email when you asked me to and now I am avoiding you. It’s frustrating for you to work with me because you place a high value on the quality of your work and believe some people, like me, rush things and waste time because we aren’t as thoughtful or careful when we make decisions. Because of your values, beliefs, and perceptions about me, you now change your behavior. Maybe you go back to your office and send me an urgent email requesting an immediate answer to your email. Or, maybe you come after me as I walk the other direction, pretending I didn’t see you. 

Now I see your behavior of pursuit and this cycle between us starts to create a pattern. 

If we had a high level of trust and respect between each other, the dynamic of perceptions, values, beliefs, and behavior between us would flow quite freely. But in our relationship, trust and respect are low, which is impacting our ability to get work done as effectively as possible.

What needs to change in this model if trust and respect are low? And how do we improve this situation?

What to Do When Trust or Respect Are Low

It’s reasonable to believe we need to communicate our expectations to each other or to change our beliefs about one another. These things can certainly be helpful—and might be all we need to do—but what if the behavior that caused the challenges in our relationship doesn’t change?  Will communication or a change of beliefs be enough to build trust or respect? (Just think for a moment about all the times you’ve talked with someone repeatedly about something but the frustration has continued.) If not, what must change if trust and respect are going to improve?

If any variable in this perceptions/beliefs/behavior shifts, the entire cycle will change, at least to some degree; however, if the behavior that created the frustration doesn’t change, a revision of beliefs, perceptions, or even values probably won’t matter to the other person because behavior is the only thing they can fully access. In other words, if one of us has an evolution in perceptions, beliefs, or values, it could positively impact the relationship—but only if that change is reflected in outward conduct. Having said that, a change in social practice usually only comes after there is a transformation in beliefs or perceptions.

When You’re Frustrated Gather More Information

Consider this another way. Put yourself in the shoes of a subway passenger in a paraphrased story from Stephen R. Covey. 

It’s a Saturday morning on a busy subway and the ride is going to be a long one. You observe that there’s a man on the train with four rambunctious children. They’re being obnoxious and playing around the seats, yet the man (you assume he’s their father) stares off into space, ignoring them. Frustrated, you act upon a belief that when children misbehave, it is the responsibility of parents to manage them. 

You say to the man, “Your children are making a lot of noise. It would probably be good if you quieted them down somewhat.” The man, again, chooses to do nothing. He takes no action to better handle his children’s behavior as they make paper balls out of newspaper and begin throwing them around the train. 

Again, you act upon your same belief and comment to the man. He looks at you, bewildered, and says, “We just came from the hospital. Their mother just died and I guess they don’t know how to handle it; neither do I.” 

Immediately you wish you could take back your comments. Your perception of their behavior has changed completely now that more information has come through your filters (perceptions). Your beliefs likely didn’t change (parents should manage the behavior of their children), but your perceptions did (this is not a lame parent but a person in great need); therefore, your behavior changed. You no longer acted frustrated and disturbed. You acted with compassion and sympathy, telling the man you were sorry and asking if you could do anything to help.

Perceptions or beliefs may be the driver, but the behavior is what we see, hear, or do. We cannot control someone else’s worldview, how they act, or what they value, but we can change ours, thus impacting the beliefs and perceptions of others around us. 

In Effectiveness Institute’s “People Skills” program, we try to challenge your perceptions, increase your awareness, and offer ways in which you can better build trust and respect among coworkers.