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Perceptions vs reality

Diane Lightfoot, Business Disability Forum

One of my two favourite poems is Burnt Norton from Four Quartets by TS Eliot. And my favourite line from that is: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

Diane Lightfoot

But, as leaders, we do need to know the reality of what is happening on in our organisations if we are to enable everyone to thrive – and that may not be what we think it is. So, at our annual conference “Disability: What’s New, What’s Next”, which took place on Wednesday 30 June, sponsored by our Partner HSBC, we  explored the theme of perceptions vs reality, and shared a fascinating study by Accenture that looks at the gap between the perceived culture that senior leaders believe exists in their organisation and the actual employee experience. Specifically, we looked at the perception gap between how the level of “psychological safety” that senior executives imagine it feels to share a disability or a difference – and how it really feels.

My other favourite poem is also by TS Eliot the Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. And some of my favourite lines from that poem are: “There will be time, there will be time; To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”.

We all prepare the face and look that we want the world to see, but for some of us, that external face does not reflect reality. For some of us, it may not match how we feel inside. For others, it might require an extraordinary amount of effort and work behind the scene to create that public persona; to prepare that face to meet the faces that we meet.

We explored how much the external face – and body – we present reflects the realities that we live with, how big the perception gap to others and how we might bridge that gap by sharing our real, lived experiences. What if your body image doesn’t reflect the way you look in the mirror or the ways others see you?  A few years ago, I recorded a podcast for BDF as part of our series “Who am I? The person behind the job title”. On it, I spoke about my experiences with depression. That wasn’t new; I’ve spoken about that many times. But what was new was that for the first time I spoke about my experience of having a fairly serious eating disorder whilst at university. Just speaking about it was incredibly cathartic; for the first time I was able to see myself as a success for surviving, graduating and – gradually – getting better rather than a failure for not achieving better grades. And what pulled me out of it was finally seeing reality. An unexpected glimpse of a skinny, frail child which I suddenly realized was me – in a mirror I wasn’t expecting to see.

The pandemic has also changed our relationships with our image but for better or worse? On the positive side, the requirement to look and dress in a certain way has been relaxed (I could never have imagined meeting with Government ministers wearing fleeces) and I have talked before about the removal of our workplace “armour” of offices, desks, suits and high heels leading to a much more inclusive and human feel of leadership. On the minus side, enquiries about facial cosmetic surgery have rocketed as a result of seeing ourselves on screens all day and our sense of identity around how and where – and with whom – we work has changed perhaps forever.

Update: We explored these themes at our virtual conference “Disability: what’s new, what’s next” which took place on 30 June thanks to the generous sponsorship of our Partner HSBC. Members and Partners can find the sessions here.

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