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Workplace organizational behaviour part II: Perception

In a previous post, I discussed the definition of workplace organizational behaviour and how certain individual-level variables—including personality, ability and learning—affect productivity, absenteeism, turnover and job satisfaction. In this post, let’s examine how one’s perception influences productivity, absenteeism, turnover and job satisfaction.


What is perception?

Perception is the process by which individuals organize and interpret their sensory impressions in order to give meaning to their environment. What one perceives can be substantially different from what another person perceives, and both can be very different than the actual objective reality. In fact, behaviour is based on one’s perception of what reality is, not reality itself.

Why is perception important in the workplace?

Behaviour in the workplace is based on people’s perception of the workplace. There are many factors that influence how something is perceived. Factors pertaining to the perceiver can involve the person’s attitudes, motives, interests, experience and expectations. Contextual factors can involve time, work setting and social setting. Finally, factors related to the actual target can involve novelty, motion, sounds, size, background and proximity.

But what does perception have to do with employment?

Well, there are various ways that a person can perceive a situation in the work environment that can lead to problems. For example, the following can occur among employees in the workplace on a daily basis:

  • Fundamental attribution error: The tendency to underestimate the influence of external factors and overestimate the influence of internal factors when making judgments about the behaviour of others
  • Self-serving bias: The tendency to attribute one’s own successes to internal factors and blame one’s own failures on external factors
  • Selective perception: The tendency to selectively interpret what is seen based on one’s interests, background, experience and attitudes
  • Projection: The tendency to attribute one’s own characteristics to other people
  • Stereotyping: The tendency to judge someone on the basis of the perception of a group to which that person belongs
  • Halo effect: The tendency to draw a general impression about an individual based on a single characteristic

Examples of perception in the workplace

  1. As you can imagine, the way a person perceives a job applicant during an interview can affect an organization. For example, interviewers may like one aspect of the interviewee and—pursuant to the halo effect—assume that person is entirely a good fit with the company. Or, interviewers may learn they have one thing in common with the interviewee and project that they are similar to the candidate in every way, making a good fit for the organization.
  2. An employee may not get a promotion because an employer has formed a negative impression about the employee simply because that person belongs to a particular religious group. This is stereotyping, and is clearly contrary to human rights legislation. However, given human nature’s tendency to gather things and people into groups and make general impressions, this can occur more often than one might think.

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  3. An employee may be considered disloyal or not putting enough effort into a project. These characteristics are subjectively judged based on an employer’s perceptions. For instance, one supervisor may selectively perceive an employee to be loyal, while another supervisor may selectively perceive that same employee to be too conforming and insincere.

What effect does perception have on employees and the workplace?

In terms of perceptions, research has shown that what employees perceive from their work situation influences their productivity most. Therefore, to influence productivity, it is necessary for employers to assess how workers perceive their jobs.

Likewise, absenteeism, turnover and job satisfaction have more to do with an employee’s perception of the job. Those individuals who perceive their jobs as negative are likely to have increased absenteeism, more frequent turnover and less job satisfaction. The only way to influence these variables is to understand how an employee subjectively perceives the workplace.

Consequently, perception influences decision-making within an organization. Take the example of the interview. Within the first few minutes of the interview, the interviewer has learned some information about the interviewee and has formed an impression based on various perceptions. The interviewer then decides whether the candidate is a good fit with the company. The remaining time in the interview is typically spent asking select information that supports the initial decision.

Takeaways – managing our perceptions at work

Though we are all human and have a background and a particular perspective on which we rely when perceiving things in the work setting, it is important to be aware of the various factors that influence our perceptions, especially when making important decisions that affect the organization.

Sometimes it is a good idea to have a few decision makers provide an opinion when making big decisions to ensure that various perceptions are considered before taking the plunge. It’s also very helpful to have written workplace policies and procedures in place to ensure that reduce the likelihood help narrow the gap between perception and reality. Such policies help ensure management and employees act fairly and consistently, thus reducing the risk of discrimination and human rights violations, among other problems.

Christina Catenacci


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Christina Catenacci

Christina Catenacci, BA, LLB, LLM, was called to the Ontario Bar in 2002 and has since been a member of the Ontario Bar Association. Christina worked as an editor with First Reference between February 2005 and August 2015, working on publications including The Human Resources Advisor (Ontario, Western and Atlantic editions), HRinfodesk discussing topics in Labour and Employment Law. Christina has decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Western Ontario beginning in the fall of 2015. Read more
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5 thoughts on “Workplace organizational behaviour part II: Perception
  • Thanks for your comments, Yosie and Adam. It is definitely an interesting topic where people could discuss all day on how to narrow the perception-reality gap.

  • Adam Gorley says:

    I agree with Yosie.

    I think the key is to narrow the perception-reality gap, which means working hard to ensure employees and their managers (and the employer, too) understand each others’ motivations in decisions large and small.

    Of course, probably most people’s perceptions are very deeply ingrained, and even open and honest communication will not guarantee that you’ll all see eye to eye. I think this is particularly troublesome when it comes to issues around religion, sex, and race. This is why we still see so many cases of harassment or discrimination where the employer or manager doesn’t believe that he or she has done anything wrong. That person’s perceptions don’t allow her or him to see the alternative.

    I guess that’s one reason why it’s so important to have policies in place that affirm employees’ rights and provide them with some means to complain without fear of reprisal.

  • Thanks for the comment, Ruth.

  • Ruth Estwick says:

    Interesting post; I hope the focus of the next posts in the series will speak to how you change those perceptions and shift the culture to reflect the organizational standards. Most of what you’ve discussed is standard Organizational Behaviour 101, delve a little deeper; most of your readers already know the basics.

  • Yosie Saint-Cyr says:

    Problems do arise when perception are incorrect or are not in alignment with the workplace culture. However, proactive communications and candor is a great solution. The organization through it’s managers/supervisors have the responsibility to help employees understand how the organization defines right and wrong along (ethical standards) with its goals and expectations. There must also be management support when employees act on those standards.