The Role of Perception/Mindsets in Asking the Right Questions & Communicating With Impact




Editor's Note

Leadership success, observed Peter F. Drucker, was not necessarily based on superior talent or intelligence but on applying talent and intelligence to the right things.

Not-good leaders tend to apply their talents and intelligence to the wrong things and ask the wrong questions.

Drucker, in Adventures of a Bystander, tells us how the legendary chairman of General Motors, Alfred D. Sloan, had the uncanny ability to ask the right questions:

“Decisions on people usually provoked heated debate in the GM executive committee…

…Once, the whole GM committee seemed to agree on one candidate for president of an operating division who had handled this crisis superbly, solved that problem beautifully and quenched yonder fire with great aplomb…

…Mr. Sloan, finally, broke in. ‘A very impressive record your Mr. Smith has,’ he said. ‘But do explain to me how he gets into all these crises he then so brilliantly surmounts?' … 

…Nothing more was ever heard of Mr. Smith."

Drucker's Point?

There are really several points worth discussing. For starters, Mr. Sloan had a different perception than the executive committee.

The executive committee focused on how Mr. Smith solved one problem after the other with great skill. Mr. Sloan focused on why Mr. Smith had so many problems to solve.

Mr. Sloan was implying that Mr. Smith should have been preventing problems from occurring rather than solving them after they occurred.

He was also implying a senior-level executive with frontline responsibility must be able to focus on making the future, that is, on maximizing opportunities rather than just solving problems.

It's true. Many prefer "to put out fires" rather than focus on the more difficult task of maximizing opportunities. Rather than being entrepreneurial minded (i.e., opportunity focused), some executives are superior arsonists. Moreover, they expect accolades for putting out fires they themselves created.

Looking Deeper Into Mr. Sloan's Insight About Mr. Smith

A powerful Drucker principle provides timeless wisdom: "Resources to produce results, must be allocated to opportunities rather than problems... One cannot shrug off all problems, but they can and should be minimized…"

It's an all-too-common problem. Many executives get promoted and are highly paid because of their supposed ability to solve a continuing stream of problems. But that's not where the future lies. In reality, executives which fit the "putting out fires" profile really leave the opportunities to fend for themselves.

Busy-ness masquerading as productive activity eventually becomes apparent. But not before much damage is inflicted on the organization.

Stated differently, Drucker taught us the pertinent question is not how to do things right but how to find the right things to do, and to concentrate resources and efforts on them. We suggest memorizing this Drucker principle. Say it three times! It will prove valuable.

Focusing on opportunity is just one of many Drucker's principles that defines an effective executive. Mr. Smith was not, in Mr. Sloan's opinion, qualified for the position he was about to be offered because he was not oriented (or had the appropriate mindset) to make the future happen.

At best, one would assume Mr. Sloan concluded Mr. Smith would turn out to be a "custodian" of what already exists. To sustain profitable growth, requires an entrepreneurial mindset. (We will discuss this in detail in a near-future article).

What Does Perception Really Mean?

People with different knowledges and experiences can view the same facts differently.

What A sees so vividly, B does not see at all. And, therefore, what A argues has no pertinence to B's concerns, and vice versa.

"Just as the human ear,” Drucker wrote, “does not hear sounds above a certain pitch, so does human perception all together not perceive what is beyond its range of perception.”

In his book Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Drucker reminds us that "When a change in perception takes place, the facts do not change. Their meaning does."

Simply put, how we see things influences how we understand them and how we respond to them.

Mark Twain once quipped: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Take-home message: Perhaps the first question we must ask ourselves before attempting to communicate an idea, concept or principle should be: "Is what I am trying to communicate within the recipient's range of perception or can he/she receive it?"

Does the recipient have the core competencies, understanding and meaningful experiences to truly understand what I am trying to communicate?

More on the Role of Perception in Communications

The purpose of communication, at its very core, is to convey understanding and to influence others. It entails the production of the message by someone and the receipt of a message by others. Truly important communication involves talking/writing the transmission of thought from one mind to another.

Accordingly, Drucker divided the process of communication into three interacting components: content (what we say), technique (how we say it) and demand (to whom we say it).

A failure in communication occurs unless all three of these components are effectively addressed. The elements of content and technique have typically been accorded the highest priority because both features are more readily identifiable in terms of direct implementation and possible improvement.

Unfortunately, content and technique are of little use, as stated earlier in this article, if the recipient of the communications does not have the appropriate knowledges and experiences to truly understand what's trying to be communicated. This is another way of saying there is no demand for what's being said and how it's being said.

Further, if the recipient is not motivated for whatever reason, the "demand component of communications" is not present. Regardless of the brilliance of the content & the elegance of the delivery, unless the recipient is prepared to receive and understand the message–all that exists is noise and static.

A Useful Example

For years, W. Edwards Deming, a pioneer in the total quality movement, could not attract an audience in the United States to hear his message. However, he was an instant success in Japan after World War II.

His content was the same; his technique of delivery was the same; but in Japan there was demand for what he had to say. Then, NBC News broadcast a program entitled "If Japan Can, Why Can't We" which described why Deming's methodology enabled the Japanese to produce products with minimum defects, less scrap, less cost associated with field service costs and more.

Suddenly, there was enormous demand in America for Deming's teachings. The missing ingredient "demand" was now present. Effective communication could begin.

Summary & Conclusions

The GM executive committee had a different perception of Mr. Smith. Mr. Sloan's perception was based on his mindset of what an effective executive is really supposed to do. He knew immediately not-so-good executives have mindsets to maintain the status quo or are problem-focused as opposed to being opportunity-focused.

People with different knowledges and experiences can view/hear the same facts differently. That's what we mean by differences in perception.

Communication of all kinds depends on content, technique of delivery and demand for what is being said. Demand for one's message is highly dependent upon the perceived need for that message.


Come to our virtual conference on L&D Leadership in a Time of Great Change and learn about the role of a Drucker-inspired Mindfulness approach that provides needed direction & method to enable managers/executives "liberate" themselves from self-imposed boundaries through the practice of attention, self-development & self-management which inevitably leads to the ability to ask the right questions & become truly effective (i.e., do the right things in addition to doing things right).

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