In this post we provide a true story of the extent to which perception gaps can arise between a leader and a follower, consider how these gaps arise and, in the process, determine strategies for eliminating them.


In fact, this is two true stories rolled into one as the conversation with the bosses and one direct report of each of them were almost identical. In one instance, the boss was the Group Finance Director of a multinational travel services company (and the direct report was the Finance Director) and in the other the boss was a main Board director and Chief Executive Officer of a manufacturing subsidiary and the direct report was his Marketing Director.

First is the conversation with the boss, with Q standing for questioner and B for boss:

Q: ‘So, how would you describe your leadership style?’

B: ‘Well, I think I would say I was an empowering leader, who trusted his staff.’

Q: ‘An empowering, trusting leader – very powerful. How do you demonstrate this leadership approach?’

B: ‘Well, it’s simple really. Let us say, a project crosses my desk that I have neither the time nor inclination to handle personally. I will call the appropriate person in, or, to be honest, most of the time whoever is available as we are all so busy these days, and I say, “I trust you and I empower you. Here’s this little project for you to do. I know you will do an excellent job – best of luck” or some such thing.’

Now to the follower’s perspective:

Q: ‘So, how you would describe the kind of leadership you receive?’

A: ‘My boss is a dictator.’ (The other follower used the word ‘tyrant’.)

Q: ‘Oh! dear. How does he demonstrate this dictatorial approach?’

A: ‘Well, you know how overworked I am, with my increased responsibilities and number of direct reports? Well, in the midst of trying to cope, I get the dreaded summons to the boss’ office. Then I hear the two words I hate most in the English language – “empower” and “trust”. He waffles on about how he trusts me and is going to empower me, then dumps on me some God awful project, which I haven’t time to do, and, sometimes, haven’t got the technical skill to do. Then he dismisses me with words like “I know you’ll do a good job”.’

‘Well, what do I do? I either dump it down , “Sorry – empower one of my staff!” or, more often than not, as my staff are working all hours like me, I try my best to do the job.’

‘What is even worse is that a few days later, he saunters into my office, asks how I am getting on, reviews what I have done and points out all my mistakes!’

The existence of these perception gaps severely diminished the quality of the business relationships between these two bosses and their subordinates, as well as affecting the competence and stress levels of all. Both bosses had to spend more time checking (or, as they phrased it, ‘supporting’) than was necessary and the absence of coaching (for relevant projects) meant that mistakes were made and deadlines missed, which did not reflect well on the bosses in their superiors’ eyes.

The followers had to work less effectively and efficiently than they could have done if they had received the proper coaching and support, which added to their stress levels. Additionally, they were seen as not sufficiently competent in the eyes of their bosses (despite the words uttered), which would affect their promotion prospects or, in these days of downsizing and/or organizational restructuring, prospects for continued employment.


You will notice that in Figure 3.1 there are two gaps:

figure 3.1

Gap 1 the gap between conscious intent and manifestation

Gap 2 the gap between manifestation and the impact on the other party – the follower.

We are here looking specifically at the relationship between leader and follower, but the gaps and their causes hold for any relationship, business or social. As an example, we will take a situation where we want to persuade a follower (let us call the follower Sally) to change the way she is managing a project.

Our conscious motivation or intent is to transfer a little of our expertise to the follower so that she does the project better. As we are the boss and accountable for the results of the project, there is an element of self-interest. We will also assume that Sally is the project leader and we hold only a watching brief. She has been given both the authority and responsibility to manage the project team. No gaps arise in the right environment with the right approach.

Let us say the words we use, with consistent non-verbal signals or body language, are, ‘I have got a good idea as to how we can reduce the time taken to install the new network’.


If this suggestion comes as part of a regular weekly review
of the project with the follower.

There is an agenda and key aspects of the project are discussed
(IT) is the item being discussed.

Then, provided our idea is sound, it is likely to be gratefully accepted. There are no gaps. The suggestion is part and parcel of explicit expectations set and phrased in a positive, non critical way. Because the behavioural manifestation expresses the intent effectively, there is no gap 1. When the environment is also right,there is no gap 2. We achieve our objective, which is to get the follower to ‘change’ – do something differently to how she would have done it without our effective intervention.

It is accepted because we have created an environment where there is a ‘shared voyage of discovery’. The follower will be coming through with her ideas as well and both parties will be developing ideas together.

In the wrong environment, though, there is no gap 1, but we may cause a gap 2. We will return to this later in this topic when we look at gap 2, but here we will focus on the causes of gap 1 and then how to eradicate them.

How The Gap Between Intent And Behavioural Manifestation Arises

Let us look at each cause in turn.

We Are Under Stress

We may be under stress, feeling irritable, in a rush and so on, so we say to Sally ‘The installation time for the new network can be reduced by 50 per cent. This is what you have to do…’. Interestingly, when under stress or in a rush, when we are feeling the pressure, there is a natural inclination to move into more of a ‘tell’ style or ‘command and control’ leadership approach. The problem with this is that some staff will only verbally agree and then ignore us afterwards and others will do their level best to implement our suggestions or ‘instructions’, but will not fully understand or ‘own’ the solution and so will implement them imperfectly.

In fact, we may well not bother with a face-to-face meeting, sending the follower an e-mail message or written note advising her of what she has to do to improve the management of her project. Putting yourself in your follower’s shoes, would you see that intervention as a helpful suggestion, which acknowledges and respects your authority and competence as project leader? Neither would I, yet that was the intent!

Incidentally, there are many executives who use written instructions and e-mails as a matter of course, with no intention to upset or demotivate and no knowledge that that is the impact because the follower is not prepared to volunteer feedback – it is never requested. In any case, even if feedback were to be ‘requested’, it would never be honest. If the employee is on the way out, honest feedback may be volunteered and ignored!

We Are Driven By The Subconscious

A positive conscious intention may hide a subconscious or implicit intention that is more negative. So, our conscious desire may be to improve the position, but to build self-esteem we also want to criticize. The way we behave manifests such hidden intentions. For example, ‘Sally, your plan to install the new network is flawed. I have come up with a way to reduce installation time by 50 per cent. This is what you have to do.’

Human nature being what it is, Sally is likely to pick the word flaw as the key word in the sentences and react negatively to what she perceives is implied criticism.

Incidentally, this cause is a very common one. I don’t know if you have noticed, but often when two work colleagues get together to have a chat – or, for that matter, any two people do this in any setting – there can be a tendency to flatter each other and make the occasional unfavourable comment about anyone else not present whose name crops up! This combines positive and negative approaches to building self-esteem – building each other up and running others down to create a positive gap between ourselves and the other parties not present.

If we have low self-esteem as leaders, this negative manifestation of intent will be commonplace, though unrecognized, which is one reason for my suggesting that we should develop our feelings of competence and confidence as a precursor to effective leadership.

We Communicate Badly

The third gap is simply poor communication. If we are the expert and know more than the follower on IT matters (perhaps one of her team is the IT expert), then we may use language, jargon or concepts she does not fully understand. She may perceive us as blinding them with science or proving our superiority in the chosen area, none of these manifestations being intended. Unless the follower acknowledges her lack of understanding and seeks and receives clarification (and often people are reluctant to expose their ignorance), then implementation of the change will not be fully effective or the wrong change will be implemented – neither of which is a desirable outcome.

In summary, if their is a gap 1, the manifestation of intent will produce an impact unavoidably different to the intent. The other person accurately responds to the behaviour manifested, as that is the explicit demonstration of intent. They will assume, because of the gap, an intent that is consistent with the manifestation, but which is not the initiator’s actual intent. Hence the misperception, which can be so damaging to relationships and to the effective initiation of change. In this case there is no gap 2.

How To Close The Gap

how to eliminate perception gaps

Looking at each cause in turn, we need to do the following.

  • Recognize and try to eliminate stress, at least temporarily. Avoid the hasty memo or sudden intervention by telephone or ‘dropping in’. In fact, as already suggested, what will help significantly, both in terms of our stress and that of our followers, is if we have a policy of proactively managing the environment so that it is conducive to the acceptance of our suggestion before we make our intentions known. However, we may not be in a position to hold regular meetings as our followers are geographically dispersed or the dictates of deadlines mean that we cannot wait. In such cases, it is better to telephone than send an e-mail.
  • Deliberately use the ‘assertive pause’. This involves pausing to breathe at least twice as slowly as normal, thereby carrying oxygen-rich blood to our brains and literally ‘clearing our heads’. This will enable us to consciously consider our intention and motivations and try to identify and eliminate any critical aspects before we speak.
  • Try to avoid jargon. As a matter of policy, check that the other party has understood what they have agreed to.
How The Gap Between Manifestation And Impact Arises

While manifestation of intent can be totally consistent with the intent, the environment in which the interchange occurs, or the poor listening skills of the receiver or their mind-set towards the transmitter, means that the actual impact is different to the intent/ manifestation. Let us look at each of these elements in turn.

The Leader Enters The Wrong Environment

As already mentioned, the environment in which an interchange takes place is critical to the outcome. So, if the message is delivered in a way that is consistent as to intention and manifestation, then the impact can still be negative because the environment is wrong.

Both the leader and the follower have a responsibility to proactively manage the environment. As suggested, the leader should avoid the unexpected, such as dropping by or telephoning with their new idea. The follower also needs to be assertive when the leader is entering the wrong environment, advising them that they are rushed off their feet, busy in a meeting, going to a meeting and so on.

The Follower Does Not Listen

Say the follower does not pick up the message correctly. There can be a cause and effect relationship with the environment – the listener is distracted by pressure of other work, or the listener has failed to listen actively, only focusing on part of the message or picking up the wrong end of the stick.

Such events are no problem for the leader, provided they do not make assumptions that agreement means understanding, and ensure that any assumptions are checked. We can see that, although in theory leaders can be considered as not being responsible for the causes of gap 2, they need to be proactive to avoid harmful effects that result. It is the price paid for being the leader.

The Follower Has A Fixed Mind-set

People will often not believe the evidence of their own eyes. It happens in personal relationships and in business relationships. People come to expect what happened in the past to continue and pass judgements that become unwritten rules of behaviour towards the other person in the relationship. They do not notice changes in attitude or approach. So, if the followers perceive the initiator of change, their leader, as someone who has in the past criticized them when they suggested change or told them what to do out of stress or communicated poorly (that is, there has always been a gap 1), they may well react to effective communication of intent as if there was still a gap!

This is a very difficult situation for leaders. They are likely to think, ‘Here am I, trying to respect the follower’s position as project leader and suggesting a useful change in a positive way, and all she does is throw it back in my face. Well, I am not standing for that. Now, let me tell you…’.

You may discover a direct way of handling this situation. All I can suggest is an avoidance strategy – the generic solution we considered at the beginning. If you, as leader, ensure that the environment is right, that itself will begin to change the perceptions of the person with the negative mind-set.

Finally, we need to consider the cumulator.

What Is The Cumulator?

The cumulator is a combination of a cause or causes in both gap 1 and gap 2. They combine in an explosive way, leading to the most unfavourable outcomes, from a shouting match to employee dismissal. For instance, a leader’s conscious intention is to make a helpful intervention, but he criticizes, and the intervention occurs in the wrong environment, in front of the follower’s own subordinates. This is not deliberate on the part of the initiator – the leader has just rushed in with his brainwave.

Problems like these will be eliminated by adopting the generic solution – regular, planned review meetings. What is also required is disciplining oneself to recognize that, in all but the most exceptional cases, there is no need to ‘act in haste and repent at leisure’.

It is vital that such perception gaps are reduced, if not eliminated, as they act – as the original story demonstrated – as a considerable demotivator.

Motivating staff is one of the core responsibilities of an effective