Which Is Most Important, Perception or Performance?


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Perceived performance

Perception is reality. If you are perceived to be something, you might as well be it because that’s the truth in people’s minds. 

Steve Young

For those who believe that perception is reality, performance isn’t important, but perceived performance is everything.

There are three ways to improve perceived performance:

1. Distort the data

In his book, “Narconomics: How To Run a Drug Cartel“, Tom Wainwright tells the story of a $1.8bn drug bust carried out by the Department of Public Safety in Austin Texas.  It was a huge coup against organised crime and all the more impressive as the police completed it without firing a single gunshot.  The drug lords themselves didn’t even realise they had been busted. 

Officials changed the value of the drugs they had seized from their wholesale to retail price. With a simple change of a spreadsheet the effectiveness of their enforcement activity jumped from $161 million to $1.8 billion.

This revaluation was less than legitimate. There is a world of difference between a sack full of cocaine sitting at the border crossing in El Paso and a line of coke sitting in a dealers pocket 2,000 miles away in Philadelphia. 

This impressive increase in perceived performance happened a week before the department had to submit its annual appraisal.

Distorting the data is the easiest way to improve perceived performance.

2. Distort the system

The ambulance service exists to transport ill people to hospital.  To improve performance the UK government instigated a national target. It stipulated that 75% of life-threatening emergencies should have an ambulance on the scene within eight minutes of the call.

In an attempt to hit the target, the East of England Ambulance Service invested in “Rapid Response Vehicles”. These are medically equipped cars and motorcycles.  They are less expensive than full blown ambulances and don’t need to be staffed by two paramedics.  Consequently they provide cheap capacity. This is very helpful if you are trying to respond to emergencies within 8 minutes. 

Having a paramedic on the scene quickly is a good thing. But it is difficult to transport an 80 year old man having a heart attack to hospital on the back of a motorbike.

A system that takes medical care to patients is not the same as one that takes patients to medical care.

One senior paramedic claimed “The trust has become so fixated with hitting the target by sending out RRVs to “stop the clock”. Care, patient safety, and dignity are really being badly compromised”.

Distorting the system is the second easiest way to improve perceived performance.

3. Improve the system

In 1974 James Dyson bought a Hoover Junior. He became frustrated with its performance and decided he could do better.  He was right, by 2001 Dyson had captured 47% of the UK’s upright vacuum cleaner market with his cyclone cleaners.  The cyclone vacuum improves performance over the historic “suck through a bag” system as the cyclone separates out the dust without effecting vacuum power.

To perfect the system Mr Dyson tried 5,173 prototypes and it took him 15 years to launch his first cleaner.

The hardest way to improve perceived performance is to improve real performance.

If you want to improve real performance…

There are two things you must do

First remove the reasons people worry about perception. Remove the incentives, take away the carrot and the stick. People don’t need to be motivated to perform. They need the opportunity.

Secondly improve the quality of your own perception. It is easy to pull the wool over the eyes of people who spend their lives looking at PowerPoint in board rooms. You can only accurately perceive performance by going and looking at it.

It isn’t easy

Things worth having rarely are. It is only worth the effort if you are more worried about performance than perception.

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Image by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


  1. Short and snappy – great article James.

    I started reading this rather worried… I needn’t have been, the author has rightly redeemed himself with two excellent points of insight – remove the reasons people worry about perception (I couldn’t agree more) and improve the quality of your own perception – somewhat obvious but very apt.

    I do wonder however, how can the people in the boardroom viewing endless PowerPoint improve their perception?

  2. Aldous Huxley said “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” We take in, store, and often believe information through the senses, and that, relative to past experience and embedded positions, shapes our individual views of the world and influences our actions. In downstream behavior coming out of CX,, people act based on what they perceive as positive (or negative) value delivery. Through clever infomercials, Ron Popiel got rich by offering the anticipation, via demonstration, of enjoyment and value represented by his assortment of gadgets. Without peeking around the doors of perception, does anyone really need a pocket fisherman or pasta maker? Where would QVC and HSN be without the perception of value?

  3. Interesting title for the content that follows. “Either-or’s” or almost always “both, and.” Your examples are great. Perception is the root of attraction but performance is the basis of sustainablity. In the end, our management (some might same manipulation) of what customers perceive comes crashing down when the customer gets to see behind the curtain. Smoke and mirrors might make a great show, but it is still only smoke and imagery without substantive performance. I like the strong message you send at the end of the piece. We must show rock-solid integrity with our clever, attactive imagery.

  4. Hi James: thanks for this thoughtful post. In my research of ethical and legal problems in marketing and sales, a common theme in every occurrence of exploitation is unrestrained manipulation of perception. This is exactly what VW did when it used the branding message clean diesel (an oxymoron, if there ever was one), while engineering its vehicular emissions control software to circumvent regulatory barriers. For a while, perception was the reality – until VW’s deceit was exposed.

    While I disagree with the statement that performance isn’t important, I agree that perceived performance always eclipses actual – and probably always has. One reason that pharmaceutical manufacturers continually invest more in marketing than in research and development. I’d also wager that Boeing sold a bunch of 737 Max’s mainly on their reputation for safety, quality, and past performance. Perception: “we’re operating a jet made by the world’s premier aerospace company. What’s not to like?”

    The revenue-generation specialties of branding, advertising, marketing, and selling are all testimony to your point that managing (i.e. manipulating) consumer and stakeholder perceptions are crucial for sales growth. Are Carr’s Water Table Crackers any better quality-wise or flavor-wise than Saltines? Or, have the company’s brand specialists done a superb job of manipulating perception through packaging, pricing, retail distribution, and other means?

  5. Well I’m still smiling about this line: “Having a paramedic on the scene quickly is a good thing. But it is difficult to transport an 80 year old man having a heart attack to hospital on the back of a motorbike.” ! This is a great example of how things can go sideways when you’re focused on the wrong things!

    I believe you need to have solid knowledge of both – your performance and perceived performance – in order to really excel, and the advice you share that I liked the best, and that I think is often over-looked is: “Improve the quality of your own perception. It is easy to pull the wool over the eyes of people who spend their lives looking at PowerPoint in board rooms. You can only accurately perceive performance by going and looking at it.” . We should all do more of that! Step away from the PowerPoint and out of the boardroom!

    Thank you for reminding people of that!

  6. Perhaps if targets are not arbitrarily set, people may not think of circumventing the system. Targets should be set by studying the system we are trying to improve.

  7. Thanks for a thought provoking and punchy article James. My thoughts went to the issue of trust. When we are challenged every day with a lack of trust of our corporations and governments, any distortions, whatever the impetus, will eventually (if not immediately) reinforce reasons for distrust.


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