You didn’t think you were going to get out of hearing our take on the now-famous ‘dress,’ did you?

As it turns out, the color-confusing dress was a great microcosm on how to deal with different perceptions in the workplace.

“Unless you spent last week on a distant, wifi-free island, you’ve probably heard about ‘the dress,’” writes Tasha Eurich in Entrepreneur. “A photo of a dress was posted online, and identifying its color became a source of stress, argument and vitriol around the world.”

Some people saw the dress as black-and-blue, others saw it as white-and-gold, some saw it as both at different times, and some saw it as something else entirely. Meanwhile, pictures of the dress crisscrossed the virtual world, #TheDress trended worldwide on Twitter, and the controversy even caused a medical conference to go completely off the rails as people argued about the real color. For those of us who spent our childhood wondering whether one person’s “blue” was actually the same as another person’s “green,” it was a dream come true.

Immediately, the world jumped in to provide explanations, because that’s what the world likes to do when faced with something it doesn’t understand. Sources ranging from neuroscientists to photographers to the comic strip XKCD had their own take on the phenomenon, all from their own contextual perspective.

The actual explanations are irrelevant. What really matters is how you can use the whole what-color-is-the-dress thing in your daily life.

It’s a great lesson in how people cling to their own perceptions. When you think about all the arguments you had over the dress, did any of them actually change your mind? Faced with your own cogent reasoning, did anyone capitulate and agree that the colors you saw, as opposed to what they saw, were actually correct? Keep that in mind the next time someone tells you that a new process is difficult when it seems perfectly simple to you.

In fact, people are even more likely to cling to their own perceptions when confronted with facts to the contrary. Researchers studied this problem in the context of politics. “Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation,” writes the Boston Globe. “Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”

This phenomenon is particularly true in groups. When you discussed the dress with a group of people, did you end up with a Team Blue and a Team White? It’s easy for groups to polarize around a couple of points of view, and once people have declared themselves with a group in public, it can be pretty difficult to shake them from it. The lesson to be learned here is: When attempting to get buy-in for a new project, approach people individually and avoid actions that might split people into conflicting groups. For example, after a group discussion, people slightly in favor of one job candidate have much stronger feelings in favor of them, notes PsyBlog.

Ultimately, the importance of the whole dress phenomenon is that it teaches us the value of being able to see things from a different perspective, writes Eurich. “As annoying as ‘dress gate’ may have become, it represents a powerful leadership lesson: No matter how certain we are about a situation, there’s almost always another way to look at it,” she writes. “Especially as leaders, if we become too attached to our views, we can’t solve problems, maintain relationships or make good decisions.”

In fact, Eurich goes on to call the ability to take on different perspectives a defining leadership skill. “Metaphorically, if we’re seeing a problem as ‘white and gold,’ we must also develop the skills to see it as ‘blue and black.’”

We’ve written before about the importance of perception vs. reality, and the dress was a great example. “There is no right way to perceive a color,” Eurich writes. “For leaders, the same is true: there is no right way to perceive a problem; the only wrong way is to over-rely on our own perspective.”

Even when the situation is clearly blue-and-black, you need to take the perceptions of the white-and-gold people into account.

 

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