Hope Network Newsletter: Changing Perceptions (Jan – Feb 1994)

By Matt Dabbs

by Lynn Anderson and Carey Garrett
January – February, 1994

[This article and earlier ones in this series are excerpts from Lynn Anderson’s new book, Navigating the Winds of Change, by Howard Publishing Company.]

23Dr. Bob Scott of World Christian Broadcasting frequently reminds me, “Perceptions are reality.” This is doubly true for change agents! In fact, this brings us to the single most important factor in change management: Understanding Perceptions.

SO, WHAT’S A PERCEPTION?

And, what do we mean by perceptions? Perception is the way we see things. It is our interpretation of reality. Our collective cultural (this can be a religious culture) values, experiences, assumptions, and beliefs shape our perceptions and so do our own personal values, experiences, assumptions, and beliefs. The following figure shows how this happens:

Reality

Filter of:
Cultural and Individual
values • experiences
assumptions • beliefs

Perception

⎛ Mental Map ⎞
⎝ Interpreted Reality ⎠

Figure 1. Perception Equals Filtered Reality.

In a sense, perceptions are mental maps. Imagine trying to lead a parade through New York City by following a map of Denver. Charting our change strategies by the wrong map—a distorted perception—is just as hopeless. Trying harder won’t help. Even good strategies will produce bad results if we operate from a warped mental map.

For example, your mental map may say “Reaching unchurched people is job one!” (your perception of the congregation’s values), and “Contemporary music and dramatic skits in assemblies will connect with unchurched people” (your perception of what works). But, walk carefully here. The congregation may verbalize evangelism as first priority, yet you may learn while testing your perceptions that the real internalized priority for the church may be security, held in place by tradition. Besides, the unchurched people you are trying to reach may not like contemporary music. Thus, even though you may understand systems and transitions as discussed in previous articles), your strategy is built on major misperceptions and will produce ineffective outcomes. What you thought would please the church and connect with the unchurched may actually offend the churched and repel the unchurched. Outcome: Your church would likely double-shrink!

Before we implement strategies for congregational changes we must test the accuracy of our mental maps by (1) reexamining our original data, and (2) comparing notes with a number of respected people.

Again, at its most crucial point, change is about perceptions. Put simply, change management is perception management.

OLD AND NEW PERCEPTIONS

Apply this to our rapidly changing times. Some dominant old perceptions of reality might be the following:
• The earth is flat. This perception controlled global exploration until Columbus drew a new mental map.
• Women have no right to vote.

Some “old” perceptions about churches might be these:
• No people know the bible like our people!
• The Bible commands that we must only sing congregationally in worship assemblies.
• Revivals and door-knocking and handing out tracts are the most effective evangelistic methods.

Some new perceptions, on the other hand, include the following:
• Capitalism is possible in communistic countries—new in the last five years!
• Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk could share the Nobel Peace Prize.

Some “new” religious perceptions might be:
• “Ah! I see our people are not the only ones who read the Scriptures.”
• Spiritual growth is nurtured better in small group relationships than under powerful preaching.
• Evangelism is relational more than confrontational.
• Leaders should liberate and empower the people in the pews rather than make decisions and withhold or grant permissions.
• Churches can no longer build their future on denominational “brand name” loyalties. Baby boomers will not keep attending a Church of Christ or a Baptist Church or a Presbyterian Church simply because their parents did, or for its “doctrinal correctness.” When a church no longer serves their spiritual purposes, they are down the road to one that does.

HOW PERCEPTIONS FORM

Chris Argyris charts another way of looking at the developmental pattern of a perception on the following ladder:

/_____ / Form perceptions
/ /
/_____/ Impose individual meaning
/ /
/____¬ / Add cultural meaning
/ /
/_ ____/ Observe data (Reality)
/ /
/ /

Figure 2: Perception Formation
Adapted from Christ Argyris

First, we observe actual data through such channels as conversation or body language. For example, you may observe that a man’s face turned red. However, data also comes from widely held history, statistics, or trends. For example, statistics tell us that church growth has declined X percent in the last X years. We usually have fairly objective data when most people, regardless of their culture or personal background, agree on the data.

Second, we add cultural meaning, which is colored by a number of elements, such as our church roots or the country we’re from. For example, our cultural interpretation of a red face is that it indicates either anger or embarrassment.

Third, we impose individual meanings based on our own personal life experiences and upbringing. For example, I may believe that anger is unhealthy and unprofitable.

Fourth, we form perceptions or theories. These perceptions or mental maps are generated from our understanding of reality. Of course, these perceptions, in turn, determine our actions. For example, I may perceive it is best to avoid or withdraw from this angry person.

But watch the mental model shift instantly when we think “baseball diamond.” John hits a triple, but the “masked man” tags him out at home plate. Note that we first heard basic data: the man left home. Then we added cultural meanings congruent with our sensitivity to street crime. Then we imposed our individual meaning—and abracadabra!–we pulled a perception out of the hat, which filtered our reality—so that perception distorted a baseball game into a mugging.

Let us revisit an earlier illustration of the way perceptions affect worship forms and evangelistic strategies:

1) We observed data. Our religious fathers held Sunday night services at the church building. Some early minister began this strategy to capitalize on the crowds of country folks who gathered to see the modern gas lights in his town. Other ministers saw that Sunday evening evangelistic meetings “worked,” so the practice spread, gathering perceptions as time went on.
2) We added cultural meaning to the data. “Sunday night church services are an effective evangelistic outreach.” Therefore, churches across the country adopted this strategy.
3) We imposed individual meaning. Going to church on Sunday nights became an indicator that reflects our commitment to the Lord.
4) We formed the perception that Sunday night services held at the church building are essential. This perception now often persists as an old mental map by which we determine our course of action in today’s world. We even slid Bible verses under our perception so that it escalated from the best way to do things to the way God wants them done! A strategy became an event. An event became a tradition. A tradition became identity. Identity became dogma. Consequently, when an urban church today wants to change its church calendar and replace traditional Sunday night services with some alternative like Sunday night house churches, that church’s soundness may come under question.

But the culture keeps changing, so that strategies built on these old perceptions become increasingly ineffective. This has happened with whole constellations of church strategies, programs, events, vocabularies, and even beliefs. The larger and older a church, the more likely it will resist change, because older institutions are composed of intertwined layers of long-standing collective perceptions or mental models. However, like the proverbial frog in the kettle, the church is often unaware that the surrounding culture is changing slowly, gradually—but drastically—so that the church drifts out of meaningful connection with the culture and into irrelevance. Many churches are moving comfortably on a course toward eventual oblivion!

Oh, yes. As my friend Dr. Scott says, perceptions are reality. They are not abstract ideas inside our heads, but they affect what we say and what we do. They determine strategies and outcomes.

HOW PERCEPTIONS AFFECT STRATEGIES

Carey Garrett illustrates it this way, “My perception that my husband won’t help prepare meals affects my strategies with him. I do the preparation myself and get upset because he won’t help. That, of course, affects the outcome. He is less likely to help and more likely to become upset when I angrily accuse that he won’t help. Then his reaction only reinforces my mental model that he won’t help.

“But the root problem may be in the perception I hold of my husband, not primarily in the strategies I use. If I changed my assumption to be, ‘He really does want to help, but needs directions on how to help,’ then instead of doing it all myself and angrily criticizing him, I would probably approach him non-defensively, specifically asking him if he would like to make a salad or grill the steak. If this resulted in his cheerful and willing partnership in the kitchen work, the outcome would confirm my altered perception, so I would likely continue holding it.”

A common assumption or perception in the western management world—and thus in the church—is that leaders know the right things to do. Therefore, leaders decide what is going to happen. Then leaders employ persuasive strategies to help people see the benefits of what the leaders want to do. The inevitable “uninformed” resistance is considered invalid by the “informed” leaders. So the leaders’ strategy is to step up persuasion and sell the change more aggressively.

But when people feel they are being pressed to “buy in” without being asked their input, at best they comply, but they do not feel true commitment or ownership. More often they resist strongly. The resulting resistance matches the manager’s original misperception and reinforces his mental model that “those uncooperative people just don’t know what is good for them.” An Associated Press cartoon during the height of the Vietnam War illustrated this mindset: President Lyndon Johnson complains to his aide, “What’s wrong with them Vietnamese? Don’t they realize I’m killin’ ‘em for their own good?” This perception handles resistance by stepping up intensity and selling harder. Consequently the change agent does not learn from this exchange, nor does the church. Both only become further entrenched in their perceptions.

As navigational guides (not “manipulators” or “managers”), leaders do well to reexamine their own perceptions rather than intensifying the persuasion campaign to overpower the resistance of others. A healthier perception might be, “We don’t hold a corner on understanding. Let’s get the people involved in the change process. Their thoughts and ideas will enhance our mental maps and may produce more effective strategies.” The outcomes then may be both emotional and intellectual ownership by the church and full cooperation in implementing change.

In his book Overcoming Organizational Defenses, Chris Argyris spells out in depth how perceptions affect the strategies and actions we use and how these, in turn, affect the resulting outcomes we get.

If the outcome matches our original perception that resistance simply confirms that people don’t know what’s good for them, we will likely keep believing and doing the same things (strategies or actions). The outcome is that no change occurs.

However, when there is a mismatch between our perceptions and our outcomes, our first reaction is usually to try a new strategy or approach, rather than reexamine our perceptions. “Hmmm! Looks like I’ll have to change my approach with this person to get my point across” (or with this church to get my change adopted). This leads to superficial change, and we keep recycling our old perceptions. Sometimes a light goes

Match
Strategies (nochange)
Perception (Actions) Outcomes

Superficial Change

Fundamental Change

Figure 3. Superficial vs. Fundamental Change
Adapted from Christ Argyris, Overcoming Operational Defenses Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1990), 94.

off in our head and our new actions eventually lead us to a new perception. But, unless we revisit and revise our perceptions, we won’t genuinely learn how to change. To get at the root of things, we must go back and reexamine our perceptions, the mental maps which steer the strategies. When we actually change our perceptions, we will be on our way to fundamental change and may learn to move from manipulator to navigator.

With Chris Argyris’ perception-strategies-outcomes graphic in mind, let’s revisit a former illustration and suppose that I hold the following three perceptions:
1) Everybody in our church holds evangelizing the unchurched as the top priority of this church.
2) Contemporary music in our assemblies is the most effective way to connect with the unchurched.
3) It is my responsibility to get things changed. Based on these perceptions, my strategy may be, “Tell ‘em my reasons this week and start the contemporary music next week.”

But when the inevitable uproar ensues, I wonder what went wrong? First, I may have wrongly perceived the church’s perceptions and therefore used the wrong strategies. I didn’t look deeply enough to see that their verbalized values were not their real values. What they really may value is not evangelism but the status quo for themselves and their grandchildren. Besides, their unchurched friends may be offended by “this new stuff.”

Second, and far more importantly, I may be out of touch with my own perceptions. I may have misperceived my own motives for wanting the change. Deep down, maybe I want contemporary music because of my own musical taste or because I want to be considered “in” by certain of my colleagues or because I want to win a power struggle with the old guard. And perhaps some of us old preachers may feel younger when we sing young music!

Finally, I may have perceived myself as a change agent rather than a change navigator.

If I do not reflect on my own perceptions and dialogue my way into the perceptions of others, redoubling my efforts will only generate more resistance/compliance and little or no ownership/commitment. In fact, I may only further convince the flock that I am a misguided and impetuous shepherd. I will have only caused many heartaches and will have learned nothing. My best solution to this dilemma will not be another strategy but authentic conversation!

HOW PERCEPTIONS AFFECT STRUCTURES

Another variable that plays into our church system is the connection between perceptions and structures. Structures are the easier to understand because they are visible and concrete, while perceptions are invisible and abstract. The following graphic illustrates the relationship between the two.

Current
Structures

Current
Perceptions

Figure 4. Perceptions/Structures
Adapted from William Bridges, Managing Transitions (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1991), 70.

Visible structures are only the tip of the iceberg of a congregational system. The bulk of the system is hidden below the waterline. When we walk into a church service we see the tip of the iceberg: the style of worship, the symbols and signs, the mood of the color and furnishings, the demeanor of the people, the expressed values, and other externals. Structures. But, below the waterline lie the reasons those structures exist: the perceptions that drive that church. The invisible why undergirds the visible what.

The graphic above maps perceptions and structures in reinforcing circles, showing that perceptions drive structures and that the structures, in turn, reinforce perceptions in a self-perpetuating loop (vicious cycle?).

OUTDATED PERCEPTIONS

Think back again to the story about the source of Sunday evening services in small-town nineteenth-century America. People flocked from the country to see the gas lights. Preachers seized this evangelistic opportunity. Result: Sunday evening evangelistic preaching. This evolved into orthodox structure which rural Christians took to town when they planted urban churches. Today, crowds no longer gather around gas lights, yet, we still continue Sunday evening services! The structure still reinforces the old perception that it is important to have Sunday evening meetings. Thus, a perception created a structure which perpetuates a perception, which maintains a structure, which… Such loops often keep running long after neither perception nor structure have much to do with current realities.

Understanding how such perceptions come into being might help us break the vicious cycle. Consider the following process:

1950 Reality
Week-long revival
meetings are effective

1950 Filter

Experience: I saw people brought to Christ during revival meetings.

Values: I value a method that brings people to Christ.

Belief: I believe committed people will support revival meetings.

Assumption: What worked then, will always work.

1990 Outdated Perception
Our church should have week-long revival meetings.

1990 Reality
People do not attend week-long revival meetings.
Thus they are no longer effective.

Figure 5> Outdated Perceptions vs. Current Reality

BUILDING NEW STRUCTURES

Thus, to initiate transitions that can break a church out of this loop, change agents must define new structures that are still true to the foundational noble intentions which initiated the old structures. We must assure conscientious Christians that our change is not a threat to the fundamental truths of Scripture. While we may be dismantling the old structure and building a new one, the foundational truths and values remain solidly in place, and the new structure will actually perpetuate those values more effectively (see figure 6).

Assuring our closed-to-change fellow Christians that we revere the same biblical truths they do may modify their perspective of our proposed changes.

Dismantled
Structure
Old New
Structure Structure

Foundational Truths Foundational Truths Foundational Truths
and Values and Values and Values

Figure 6. Dismantling Old Structures

CLOSING THE GAP

Effective change agents cannot afford to ignore the gaps between outdated perceptions, current realities, and future vision. The gaps must be recognized, respected, and dealt with.

On the other hand, cautiously modified structures can help alter perceptions and close the gaps between out-dated perceptions and current reality. For example: Suppose a congregation changes from Sunday night assemblies to meeting in house-church groups. The change agent may attempt to alter perceptions by talking about the value of small groups—defining them, describing parameters, targeting leadership development, hearing testimonies from veterans of effective groups, etc. Then, when at least one effective small group is actually meeting, the structure itself leads to even further positive perceptions of small groups. So altered perceptions and new structures facilitate one another. In this case, we have created a “virtuous cycle” rather than the “vicious cycle” we talked about before.

While changing perceptions—our own or someone else-s—is not an easy task, understanding how perceptions form and how they affect our strategies and our structures will provide us with helpful tools as we navigate the inevitable winds of change.

Lynn Anderson

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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