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Sept. 15, 2022

194 The Power of Perception in Leadership with Dr. Maja Zelihic | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

194 The Power of Perception in Leadership with Dr. Maja Zelihic | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Dr. Maja Zelihic, Dean at the Forbes School of Business and Technology at the University of Arizona Global Campus. Dr. Maja Zelihic is coauthor along with Dr. Diane Hamilton of The Power of Perception: Eliminating Boundaries to Create Successful Global Leaders. In this conversation, Dr. Maja Zelihic talks about the power of perception, its influence on the working environment, and perception's role in leadership. Maja Zelihic also shared factors affecting our perceptions and how perception affects our behaviors. Finally, Dr. Maja Zelihic shared practical ideas on how leaders can better account for perceptions to communicate better and lead their teams more effectively.


Some highlights:

-Maja Zelihic's upbringing, becoming a refugee, and the importance of a healthy support system

-How kind words can influence a person's perspective and life journey

-Maja Zelihic on why perceptions matter

-Critical factors that can impact our perceptions in a corporate setting

-What leaders need to do to understand their own perceptions 

-Maja Zelihic on how empathy plays a role in predicting and understanding perceptions

-The impact of hybrid work on perceptions of organizational leaders and colleagues 


Dr. Maja Zelihic's Tedx talk: Perception is an E.P.I.C. reality

Dr. Diane Hamilton, Founder and CEO of Tonerra, co-author of The Power of Perception

Larry Robertson, author of Rebel Leadership  (Listen to Larry Robertson’s episode on Partnering Leadership here)


Connect with Maja Zelihic:

Maja Zelihic Website

The Power of Perception on Amazon

Maja Zelihic on Twitter

Maja Zelihic on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

More information and resources are available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

Mahan Tavakoli Website

Mahan Tavakoli on LinkedIn

Partnering Leadership Website


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be speaking with Dr. Maja Zelihic. Maja, along with Dr. Diane Hamilton, is a co-author of the book, The Power of Perception. She was recently named Dean of the Forbes School of Business and Technology University of Arizona global campus.

I really enjoyed this conversation. Most especially, about the influence our perception has to how we interact with others and lead as well. I'm sure you will enjoy the conversation and learn a lot from it. 

I also love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming, mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There is a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there. 

Don't forget to follow the podcast, Tuesday conversations with magnificent change makers from the greater Washington DC DMV region and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought theaters. 

Now, here is my conversation with Dr. Maja Zelihic.

Maja Zelihic, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.

Maja Zelihic: 

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Greetings to you and your listeners.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Can't wait to talk about our perceptions. How they impact, How we react to the world around us most especially, as leaders of organizations. But before we get to that, Maja, would love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you've become?

Maja Zelihic: 

I was born and raised in former Yugoslavia, in Bosnia Sarajevo, with parents and grandparents. I didn't have any siblings. So, I had a very wonderful childhood, lots of support during my formative years. A household that was very much focusing on education and values of education.

I had a very supportive grandfather in particular, who was a crucial member of my household as far as my upbringing and giving me certain values that I still hold dear to this day. At around 17, when I was approximately 17 and a half, I ended up, the whole country ended up in a war.

And a few years later, basically I ended up in a refugee camp in Austria and eventually immigrated to the United States. So, came here as a refugee as well and refugee status in the United States started a new life. And I've been in the United States for 26 years now.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That experience must have impacted you quite a bit Maja. So, that transition from that established family with your parents and grandparents to becoming a refugee. How has that impacted you and how has that changed your perception of the world?

Maja Zelihic: 

It was a significant trauma. There were many research studies that were exploring the concept of collective trauma cause sometimes when people experience trauma, they do it on their own. But I was experiencing it together with so many others from my country and the region. Doesn't make it necessarily any easier, but you do have a lot of support system people that are going through similar circumstances that you do.

It was a shock. It was absolutely devastating. My parents and grandparents did not follow me. So, there was a fraction of that time that I was actually all alone. I was very special to my family. I was the only child and then, there were certain things that were praised and valued at our household.

There were not necessarily needed during the refugee years. I didn't have many of the survival skills. I was poorly equipped to handle life on my own. A case in point, I didn't know how to cook at all. And here we are in this setting where we can alternate and use all the cooking equipment, but it's hard to use it if you don't know what to do with it. 

So, I had to learn real quick how to be an adult. And I had to learn real quick that I wasn't necessarily as special as I thought I was. However, the love that was given to me, that incredible love and happiness that was given to me in my formative years, carried me through and gave me strength and also instilling in me the values of education.

As soon I was able to get myself together for the lack of better words. I was asking the society of Austrians. I was a refugee in Austrian camp. They were taking care of us and they were asking us what exactly are our goals. And I was asking them and begging them to go back to school.

And they said you can do that if you pass the German state exam, which was unheard of that one can do it in two months. Written exam was better than an oral exam, but somehow, I made it through and I started going back to the university setting. That was a life saver for me, cause I think the strength and the love and the support carried me through for many years when these individuals who were so important to me were no longer around me supporting me actively.[1] 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That is so beautiful that the foundations they had laid in charging your batteries and giving you the right values were the ones kept you going through whether it was as a refugee and then eventually transitioning onto the states. Now, you also mentioned that you had to take the exam. Did you speak any German or in a couple of months you had to gain mastery on the language too?

Maja Zelihic: 

Do not test me on German now. I used to be incredibly fluent, cause I was going to the University of Lauder Francesca in Austria. But language is a living organism, if you don't use it actively. But in two months I would imagine I would get back to being fluent.

No, I did not speak German. So, what I've done is they actually have started learning for the written exam. Then there was a supportive Austrian family that kind of took me in for a little bit over the weekends and they were practicing my language. And I remember seeing my name as I passed the written exam, I was celebrating and then they're like not too fast, you're gonna have to have the oral exam. 

I started talking to a panel that was examining us. And they looked at me and they looked at my written score and they're like, sound so strange what's happening? They said, when did you arrive here?

And I said September and I was doing the exam in November. And they're like, is this cause they were they could sense I'm still like really not anywhere near where I need to be. They passed me based on the duration from the time I entered the country and the time I took the exam.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is wonderful where they gave you that opportunity, but obviously you showed a lot of potential too. In a couple of months, mastering language enough to pass the written version. What got you to go back to school? Wanna get your PhD and become a teacher?

Maja Zelihic: 

I didn't necessarily feel in control of my story. One of the values here in the American society, if the person being in control of their own story. I felt that I was constantly thrown into this current, like a river. And I had to figure this out. [2] [3] 

So make the long story short, I was doing really well at the university of Austria, but I got the deportation notice. Meaning that I have to exit Austria because the war ended. So, I cannot continue my studies in Austria. 

I actually had no choice but to immigrate. I'm thrown again into a situation of uncertainty having to immigrate yet another country, not completing my studies. So, I'm leaving Austria without my studies completed, I came to the United States again as a refugee.

And I remember on a bus that was taking us from one New York airport to another, don't quiz me, which one to which one? It doesn't matter. But I remember asking a bus driver, can I go back to school here? Which actually amused all the other refugees on that bus. They're like, look at this crazy person with this question.

She's asking a bus driver and the bus driver in New York looked at me and he said, Honey, you can do whatever you wanna do here. And I was clinging to his words. 

Sometimes we make an impact on a person's life. Sometimes we influence their story and we don't realize the significance, good or bad.[4] [5] 

 In this particular case, there's this one bus driver in New York. He had no awareness, the impact, his kind words had on me and his words were you can do whatever you wanna do. [6] 

And I came to Jacksonville, Florida, actually, we immigrated here and went through the Lutheran social services and they were trying to place us for work cause you have to work to be self-sufficient.

And I asked them, it's actually so funny and so naive now. I said, can I go back to school? And they said, you have to work first. And I said, but the bus driver said, I can go back to school. And it's I was like, like who's the bus driver? 

Ultimately started working, of course, I worked at the warehouse. I worked manual labor. Good, decent job, very tasking. And then I started going to this high school. They were offering free English lessons. After that, I evaluated my credits from Austria. And then I went back to the community college and that's how my educational journey started again.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Maja, I love what you just shared. We haven't gotten talking about perception, but there are a couple of elements of what you mentioned that I think are of tremendous value to all of our lives. First of all, you talked about being thrown in the river to a great extent. That's a part of our lives in that some aspects of it, we are not in control of.

We are thrown into different rivers. Now within each river, we have the potential to choose where and how we swim. I love that part of it. And then additionally, think about the impact we can have on someone's life. That bus driver probably has not thought a second time about his interaction or her interaction with you. 

But that bus driver's simple comment changed your perspective on who you could become and what you could do. What a beautiful way to think about our potential to impact people with the slightest word of encouragement and possibility that we share with them.

Maja Zelihic: 

Absolutely. It's all about perception. I was perceiving him as a person of authority. I'm not saying he wasn't but he has no connection with the refugee program but he was my personal authority in that bus. That was my perception. And based on that, I was engaging with him and like I said I'm sure others were like, what is going on?

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I love that story. So eventually you went on, you had the career. What was it that got you focused in on understanding that perceptions matter and we have different perceptions of exactly the same event, experience or communication?

Maja Zelihic: 

What had happened was I went from the warehouse into the banking industry. From the banking industry, financial industry, and stayed in the financial industry for quite some time. I discovered the law for teaching through corporate training. I was running a few different training programs for different financial companies.

And then ultimately, I went full time in the world of academia. I was not aware of the concept of perception per se, nor was necessarily interested in the concept of perception. 

But throughout my life, I realized here in the United States, I was reacting with more caution to ordinary life circumstances.I had more paranoia, more fear towards certain settings that my coworkers had no issues with. And I was reading too much into managerial announcements. Almost looking for the negative versus positive, cause that was by the nature of pessimist. Now it's so easy to put a label oneself. 

You heard my story. People sometimes think that refugees or people coming from the war zone or people currently in the war zone, Oh, they're so used to it. And here I am to tell everyone of your listeners, no. Seemingly it happens overnight. Your life has changed upside down and your happy existence is no longer there and will never be there. It will never be the same. 

That is why I was a pessimist, cause I was used to happiness being taken away from me. I was used to being controlled by people. I don't wanna be controlled by. So, when I react to something seemingly insignificant in a corporate setting, that was the result of my life experiences and what had happened to me. I was not aware of the perception.[7] 

It was years down the line in the academic setting when I started collaborating with my colleague, Dr. Diane Hamilton, and we were marginally aware that she perceived more in the optimistic lens, more positive versus me always being a little bit more negative. And Diane was always mentioning the concept of zebra with me. Maja, zebra. She also was telling me in any human interaction I have, I would go on a rollercoaster.

Someone is either absolutely amazing or, oh my God, they're the worst person ever. And Diane's you know what? The vast majority of the people are somewhere in the middle line. They're not good or bad. They're pretty average. 

So, we had those discussions and we were joking around and in my TEDx, I was talking a little bit how this came about but ultimately, there was a disconnect between what I was hearing and what she was hearing. 

We literally, one day took a notepad and we were on the phone and we were like writing things down. What was different between the two of us? Same education. I actually almost identical terminally degreed. Same gender. Similar in age, nothing significant to talk about. And I'm not gonna see equal intelligence cause who's equal intelligence but very comparable intelligence. So, something different is off. It's the formative years and it's the life experiences that impacted us seeing reality differently.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So that impacts our perception of the world around us Maja, but everything can impact our perceptions. 

We have 8 billion people in the world. 8 billion perceptions. So, what are the critical factors to think about? 

Maja Zelihic: 

We were focusing on the corporate setting, cause we were creating the perception power index that was geared towards companies that are trying to evaluate the perception mechanisms impacting their employees. Why? Cause they wanna align the message to the business reality. They want their employees to hear the business reality. That is tied to motivation. That is tied to the performance, effectiveness and ultimately productivity. That's the ultimate goal. 

So, in order to be a global leader, cause we were gearing this towards global leadership, one has to polish his or her perception. It's a live organism that can be worked on and it's a toolkit that can also be absolutely changed. So, we can only focus on some variables.

So, variables we focused on. Culture, formative years. Life experiences, society and its impact, gender. We were not spending too much time on age. There's so many research studies talking about different generations.

So, we felt that particular area as well, research. They touched upon it. Not too much. Curiosity, cause Diane is an expert. In curiosity, your curiosity impacts your perception quite a bit. So, culture quotient, curiosity quotient. We call it regular intelligence and emotional intelligence, and I'm sure you and I can agree, emotional intelligence is what's causing me to see things under a pessimistic lens. It's not our regular intelligence cause our brains process data. 

Now, there's also such a thing as a fluid concept of business reality. Aristotle was talking about, is there such a thing as reality and their great philosophers couldn't agree, or are we all seeing something different? I talk about Plato and allegory of a cave. Are we change to the walls of the cave? Puppeteers are moving. We're only looking at the shadows. Have I created the cave in my own mind that is only enabling me to see the shadows versus reality? [8] 

So, some of the variables that you asked me for are the ones that we investigated further, but there's so many more.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

One of the most important things, and I know you are a big advocate of this Maja. Before we can try to relate to other people's perceptions. We need to first understand ourselves. And one of the challenges I find, and I wanna get your thoughts and perspectives on, is that in many instances, people that become managers, leaders, and more experienced in organizations and move up in the hierarchies of organizations.

The input that they get from the world around them becomes a lot more skewed. Therefore, their self-perception doesn't develop with their tenure and with their experience. If anything, their self-perception becomes more skewed as a result of them moving up in the hierarchy of the organization. 

So, what do you advise to people and leaders in organizations to do in order to first uncover and understand their own perceptions better?

Maja Zelihic: 

What you're talking about is the first step of the epic process, which is evaluate. So, when Diane and I, we were talking about this, you have to be self-aware. I know what I'm trying to project. So, I'm engaging in this conversation with you. I know what I'm trying to project your listeners, your target audience and you also know what you're trying to project. 

I'm just gonna speculate some things, some common themes we can agree on. You want me to feel comfortable. You want this conversation to be engaging. Having hundreds of guests. You cannot say the you're equal, interested in every single topic. So sometimes you're gonna catch yourself faking interest. But doing it, not in a manner where you are projecting that you're faking interests. No, you're gonna force yourself to project really having an interest.

You're currently, and the listeners may not be able to see, or you're nodding your head. You're supporting my points. So, what you're trying to project right now, speculating, is support. Warm and welcoming environment. Engaging conversation and making sure I'm comfortable. 

What I'm trying to project being knowledgeable on the subject. I don't embarrass myself in front of your audience. You are not coming up with any gotcha questions, but I'm also not prepared for gotcha answers. And I'm also trying to be warm and welcoming to your audience members. And I'm also trying to be clear and concise, which is a big area of opportunity for me. So, we have to evaluate our own self. 

Now back to your question, the higher people go up the ladder, the less likely are they to get any meaningful feedback and you don't need another research study solidifying that. People are doing 360 feedback. People are doing this and that, but they're using the company servers.

They're using the survey link that is tying them. Enter your email. It's gonna be unanimous. Ultimately, I am now in the Dean position with a fourth school of business terminology. When I was a regular faculty, I probably heard more about myself than I'm ever gonna hear. 

Now something happened to me this morning. I had this presentation in Beijing webinar and I had one of my employees there and my employee was there to translate to help me if there's a need to translate or anything like that. And I was trying to put labels what I think I'm projecting as a leader. And I was asking the audience, put three labels.

And I was saying passionate, empathetic, something along those lines. And I said let me ask Woody, he's my employee. What are the three words coming to his mind? Now, chances are, Woody's not gonna say anything negative. But his first label was trustworthy. I would've never put that as my first label.

It would've been number six or seven, but that's what he sees when he thinks about me. He said, trustworthy, second label was workaholic. Now that, I didn't realize I was projecting that. So how insightful for me? They're both. Okay. Labels. There's nothing wrong with them, but not what I'm projecting first.

Mahan Tavakoli: 


That is really important. So, the one thing I encourage all us to do, and I have to consistently do myself is your first step that you mentioned in that epic process. It's evaluate and in evaluating, we need to become more self-aware. 

And if we think we are really self-aware, then we are the ones that need much greater self-awareness because the leaders that I found that feel like they really get it, they really are self-aware are the ones with the biggest blind spots that they are shocked when they truly find how other people perceive them. So, digging in to become more self-aware is really important.

Maja Zelihic: 

The thing is, leaders that usually claim that they have an open-door policy and they're really open minded and this and that, those are the ones that want flattery the most. And they are the ones that have some narcissistic tendencies.[9] 

I am still proactively trying to get feedback. I am aware of some of my areas of opportunities, but ultimately evaluate is something that you start within your own self. And yet again, you have to assess the audience and that's the predicting steps. So, it's epic. 

So, the second step is predicting. I am predicting that hopefully, you are receiving my message the way it's intended. 

So, in a global setting it's incredibly important if I'm saying something ensuring first and foremost, I'm not offending you. Second is making sure you understand me. So, I'm counting on being able to predict your reaction. 

I was in a corporate setting and I was managing different training labs. I came into one and I just sometimes would sit in the room, not necessarily to micromanage, just to observe, and I'm noticing half of the audiences is almost ready to fall asleep. 

Superbly, discreetly, utilizing the first bathroom break. I approach my trainer whispered it appears they need a lengthier break. She looked at the training manual and she said I still have to cover all these 10 pages. I said, you're not covering anything, you lost your audience. 

She was so focused. She's a good trainer, but she was so focused on her task that she had zero understanding of her audience. She did not predict what others are receiving. And she looked at me and she was like, are you serious? I said, you lost them. I said, right now you can counter the whole manual, they're not listening to you. 

Those are the type of things in a business negotiation. Predicting the reaction of another company and another partner. [10] 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So, for that prediction, you also emphasize the need for curiosity and empathy, which are key parts of that emotional intelligence. How does empathy play a role in greater ability for prediction and understanding perceptions?

Maja Zelihic: 

Prior to this interview, you were kind enough to take some time with me for us to get to know each other, which I think is terrific because you don't wanna get to know each other through the interview. Sometimes, that's not the best approach. You shared a little bit of your story. I shared a little bit of my story. 

Based on my heightened sense of empathy. I made a prediction that my story will resonate with you. I do feel that my story is compelling enough, I'm predicting. Yet again, am I certain? No, I'm predicting my story is compelling enough to resonate with many audience members, but I'm very certain it's resonating with you because of the similarities of our stories. Overlap of our journey. 

And we do belong in that unfortunate group of people in the world that no one wants to be a member of that group. Having grown through a turmoil in our own country, having to leave a country under an unfortunate set of circumstances. I always say that those are the labels that no one wants, no one applied for a membership, but once you're a member of that club, you relate to each other. We are a community. 

I talked in Ukraine recently. I talked in so many different places, in the Middle East and Africa and sadly, once you are a member, you're always a member. So, the story resonates that is that empathy that I utilize predicting your reaction to my story.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You predicted that very well, Maja. So, you have a good prediction on my possible perception. It's never a hundred percent. You can't read someone else's mind; different people take things differently based on their experiences. 

However, based on that initial conversation, you had a much better chance at predicting my perception than you would have. If you had not had the curiosity to ask the questions, to know the background, then to be able to show that empathy.

Maja Zelihic: 

Absolutely. And it is that getting to know the person. So, when I've done research across the world and, a part of my research observational study is the first step of any research venture I do. I live in a particular place get to know the people and those people may not be related at all to the research study per se, but getting to know the culture and really getting to know them, I'm overly critical of certain traits in my personality, but I also would like to give it credit where it's due. And one thing I'm not lacking is empathy. I'm definitely lacking some optimism but empathy is not one of those things that I need to work on.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It's a great strength to have. And also, empathy can be seen like a muscle. In that when we work on it, we can develop greater empathy. 

Maybe, because of life circumstances, some of us have more, some less. But we can continually work it, develop it. It makes us both better human beings and much better at predicting the perception of others.

Maja Zelihic: 

Absolutely. And I think with leadership, gender differences wise, we have to be careful cause women that are showcasing too much of their empathy, sadly are sometimes accused of being too emotional versus gentleman that are presenting themselves as a bit more not lacking empathy per se, but they're perceived as stronger or more assertive.

So, I'm always mindful of those type of perception cause I was on the receiving end of being told that there are certain cases where I really was incredibly passionate about a project, but my passion was interpreted as emotion. Whereas if it was the gentleman saying the same things, he would've probably been coded properly as passionate.[11] [12] 

We can ignore differences and saying everything is the same. When we do that, we're doing each other disservice and we have to be aware of it. So, I am empathetic and I'm showcasing it when and where needed, but I'm also sometimes forced to suppress it in different settings.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's an important point that you make Maja. As much as we want, the perceptions of others are biased based on societal influences. 

So, we can't just wish it away while we can work toward a time when we don't have to worry about all those things. The reality is, those things matter. Which is why then your third step is interpret that prediction. What is that and how can we more effectively interpret our predict?

Maja Zelihic: 

A lot of our intelligence mechanisms are at play during interpretation stage. I like to create a visual of us computing all the data in our brains. I know why I came here to your show. I know what I'm trying to project. I am predicting with some level of confidence, not full confidence, some level of confidence, your reaction.

I am predicting the audience reaction. I'm computing all the data and I'm making decisions; which direction am I'm gonna go with as we move forward with the interview. Which topics should I cover moving forward? So, I'm not really making any decisions during interpretation phase. 

So, if you're negotiating, you're at the negotiation table during that phase, you're literally looking at your quote unquote opponent studying their facial expression, trying to figure out if your message was well received.

You're predicting what their reactions going to be, and you're gathering data. Getting ready for your next move. So, you're in the phase of the data gathering. You're computing everything. That is your interpretation. You may not act at all during that stage. 

You're prepping for action during the correlation phase. Let's say in a scenario of business negotiation at that point of time, you're going with a proposal. Or at that point of time, you're walking away from that meeting. In a personal relationship, you are deciding to go on a date with this person.

Or I will never see you again. And a lot of times the decisions are not that drastic. You may just decide to change the location or something like that but ultimately that is when you're actually taking action. So, the epic is evaluate, predict, interpret, and correlate.

Now. We are not aware of this process. There's no way you and I are interacting. And you're like, okay, now we're predicting. Now we're now interpreting that'd be silly, right? We go through this process without realizing we're trying to move perception from subconscious process to more awareness, at least in a business setting.

There is a place for gut feelings. There is a place for charm. But you cannot run on the strength of your own charm and gut feelings in a business setting in a long run, especially globally. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So, one level of Maja, is our understanding of ourselves. Our self-awareness. Another level is that ability to have greater empathy and connect with others, whether it's the prediction and then the interpretation and correlation in relation to that.

Now, when leaders are reflecting on this and they're looking at interacting with the team or a group of people, what are dynamics and factors to keep in mind when you are dealing with a group beyond and besides just your own self-perception?

Maja Zelihic: 

Some of the companies that we were working on, they were administrating perception index. Trying to determine how their employees perceive reality. Short of perception index, you are starting to get to know all of your employees. 

There's a lot of these things where people say, this is just business, this is nothing personal. You have to get to know your employees. If you're approaching everyone with one size fits all approach. If all of your business communication is dry and just sticking to the facts, you are going to miss a big segment of your audience. First of all, do a basic drawing. What are you trying to convey? Is this a positive or negative message? 

Just last week I was communicating something and I was on a mission. They were like 5, 6, 7 items to communicate on and honestly, one was not necessarily superbly positive. All the others were pretty much straightforward, there's nothing to debate, or in my head. 

And one of the employees said, oh, is there anything positive? I said, wow. And I've done research. I was like, wow, what am I projecting? I'm projecting intensity, my body language. What I was trying to do is I was trying to get through all the agenda items.

If you're gonna come across too strong, too assertive, too intense, the receiver hears something that, just the pure facts, nothing to debate, all of a sudden is prestigious negative. So that is what leaders have to do. They have to constantly keep themselves in check, being aware, observe. Not trying to squeeze in 17 items in one meeting like I've tried. And also, getting to know your employees. [13] [14] 

You mentioned something I've seen many leaders, high level leaders that are absolutely not aware as to how they come across. They have zero awareness and I see it to myself, how did you get to the pointy act, having zero awareness? You only had these group of cheerleaders trailing behind you and no one ever told you that there's some opportunities for you.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is a huge issue, Maja. In my experience, I see the ones that don't have that challenge do two things differently. One is they sincerely encourage and reward dissenting opinions and people whose views counter their views and their perception. 

Now, I say this mindful of the fact that I'm sure vast majority of people listening are nodding and saying, that's exactly what I do with my team. In my experience, most leaders don't really do that with their teams. So, one leader encourages that. 

Two having a trusted advisor. Also helps because there are a lot of times when we don't have the ability to question and view our own impact on others. So, someone that can push us can really help.

Maja Zelihic: 

It's so funny that you mentioned trusted advisor. I wasn't even thinking of mentioning it. I do have a few employees that I can call and say, how was this message received? Did it go well? What are your questions? I do have that. I'm blessed in having that. But you never wanna hear negative things, even though they're not intended as negative, like I said that last week, I was like, wow, how did I miss the boat on that? Because I really was not even conveying anything negative. There was one item that was concerning. All the other items were just matter of fact, but I've had leaders in my life that were very self-aware and then I had leaders that had zero sense of self-awareness.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That is part of that journey of self-discovery that we as individuals and leaders need to go through. Understanding those perceptions, where they come from and how they impact us. We can choose to keep them as they are, or we can choose to change them. 

Now, the other thing I've been fascinated thinking about your work, Maja, is that our perceptions impact how we react to the world around us and how we react to the world around us then impacts our perceptions, which are to a certain extent reinforce. 

So, it's like a closed loop going back and forth. And I wonder how can we change this loop so it serves us best. So, we don't get stuck in our perceptions, dictating how we behave, then the behavior reinforcing our perceptions so we behave the same way in the future.

Maja Zelihic: 

What you are asking me is how to exit that cave that our mind created, cause you're defining the concept of a cave, right? So, we're now seeing shadows.

I would say observe, reflect. It's okay to be quiet and try to define your areas of opportunities. 

I've defined mine. I will not win this world when it comes to the concept of fairness. My perception of fairness will never align with a business reality, period. I said it there you go. I said it. Okay? I have to be aware of that. I have to embrace that. I have to work within the parameters of that. 

Secondly, as I am understanding that I have more of a pessimistic outlook. I have to force myself to put my research hat and gather all the facts and analyze without letting my emotions overshadow my thinking and without letting my emotions warning me of a danger cause the pessimism is connected with our self-preservation mechanisms are mental shortcut, increasing your decision making to a success level and ultimately shielding oneself while harming oneself. So, I have to be cognizant of that. Am I successful? 50 50. 

I go into a meeting and exit that meeting and the world is about to end, and then I'm about Maja, stop it. Snap out of it. So, it is a process. It's not one and done educate yourself that both of us have done and many of your audience members listening to this interview, listening to all this information that we have available. 

Do not look for the facts of your own perception. Intentionally get out of your comfort zone and seek opinion of others. Social media is not helping us. That's why we should not be getting our news on social media, cause the algorithms are messing up with. And we're constantly looking at the direction of our own preference and that is creating the cave top of a setting. [15] [16] 

Some of the simple tips that I started implementing. If I asked the question in a corporate setting 10 years ago, I was compelled to give you the answer right away. I was perceiving you thinking that I don't know what I'm doing if I don't give you the answer. I'm incredibly comfortable saying I don't have the answer right now. May I get back to you? And you may say that's not a revolutionary. It is for me; it is for me. So, your audience member, each one of them will define what revolutionary is for them. It may be something incredibly simple. It may be something incredibly complex. 

Some of the tips that I'm doing are very simple and they come from the level of increased awareness of what I'm trying to project, how I'm perceiving, and what's hindering my progress as a global leader.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

What outstanding perspectives, Maja, with respect to the self-awareness it takes, and the fact that it is a process and a journey and an ongoing one at that, both with the self-awareness. And then working on the areas that matter most to us. 

Now, one other element I would love to get your thoughts on my, with respect to perception is that some organizations have been in a virtual. Environment for the past couple of years. Many have transitioned into a level of what is called hybrid three days in person, four days in person, but still there are meetings and there are times when people are virtual. 

How does virtual and hybrid interaction impact our perceptions whether it is how people perceive us and or how we perceive and interact with our teams?

Maja Zelihic: 

The work landscape changed significantly and in our particular case, our university was always online, but there were offices. There were lots of offices in California. We close the California office. We have a presence in Arizona, we have an office, but the vast majority of the employees are not in the office.

So, we do have the leadership meetings four times a year. Some leaders have more frequent meetings and ultimately, we are remote workforce. The team bonded and connected so much more through the meetings that we had on site.

So, I do feel that even companies that decided to go remote, they do have to have some sort of leadership retreat, employee retreat, employee meeting, type of element in order for the force to be engaged and to get to know each other on a more personal level. 

I think a lot of folks are getting very burned out from Zoom. So, if the companies are really going to be remote, we don't have to meet on every item. Cause when we were in the office, we didn't have 17 meetings a day. It is okay to send an email to someone and say, Hey, John, what do you think about this? You and John do not have to have a 30-minute Zoom.

So, we are going through a cultural shift and we're finding our footing. So, if hybrid is the model that works for some companies, that's gonna be fine. I think hybrid model may work best, but many companies are gonna go full fledge remote. If so, they will have to restructure stuff. We will have to define again, what's okay to be an email? What's okay to be a phone call? And not every single thing has to be a meeting. 

I woke up this morning at 8:00 AM and because of some webinars and stuff I had, I never left this office. You asked me how the weather is. I said, I assume it, sunny. I wasn't trying to be funny. I really assume it's sunny. It's Florida. It should be sunny. I haven't heard the rain, but that's about it. So that's also not healthy. 

So, I think as every company's gonna have to find the happy medium. I think all industries are completely restructuring and money saving is first and foremost, as far as the remote workforce, but you have to talk about mental health. You have to talk about engagement. I got many more things done. Once I met fellow leaders face to face, all of a sudden, I was not hesitant to reach out to them.

So, I don't know. Verdict is still out of that one.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

We still have a long way to go to make virtual or even hybrid work effectively. There is real value to those in person connections. And if anything, to your point, the fact that the technology is there doesn't excuse the inefficient use of the technology. 

So, things that should be an email are being turned into zoom meeting, just because it's pretty easy to schedule a zoom meeting and end one. Start the next one, end one. Start the next one. 

So, if organizations are in a hybrid or virtual environment, they really need to reflect on that work process and not rely on the technology. The way we have relied on it over the past couple of years at the beginning, people used it to work with each other and to connect with each other, which was wonderful, but what has happened is people are overscheduled with meetings. And many of them there's very little reason for the meeting. No one knows why they're meeting, but Hey, it's easy. We're scheduled a Zoom call. 

So, Maja. In addition to your book, The Power of Perception, what other leadership resources or practices do you typically find yourself recommending to leaders as they are managing through these unpredictable times?

Maja Zelihic: 

My friend, Larry Robertson. His book on Rebel Leadership and several of his other leadership books, I found those fascinating. Cause in today's time and age we are these leaders that have to be a Maverick. They have to be authentic. They have to be ahead of their time. They have to be rebels. So that is the one that I definitely recommend. 

My co-author's book on curiosity, Dr. Diane's book on unlocking the code to curiosity is incredibly important because your perception is so much connected to your curiosity and those two things are correlated.

So those two books I would actually mention.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Curiosity plays a big role whether it is with our joy in our personal lives, but also with respect to leadership and connecting with others. And Larry, I had him on the podcast love his book and writing. Have loved my interactions with him even more Maja, because one of the things I love about Larry is the fact that he is core to his being. The kind of leader that he advocates for and he talks about and kind of leadership that he talks about. 

So, I couldn't agree with you more on your recommendations and most especially Larry's Rebel Leadership. You have a fantastic Ted talk of your own book. You have a perception index. So, where can the audience find out more about you, your book, Ted talk?

Maja Zelihic: 

The book is on Amazon. The Perception Power Index, the best way to access it on drdianehamilton.com website. And then the Ted talk I was actually very pleased that it is a TEDx that is published on both ted.com and Ted platforms and it is good supplemental material to all the research that we've done. I wanted to just say one more thing. The book is written for general audience members.

Yes, we are both researchers. Yes. We're both academics. We were incredibly mindful that this book will be read by the emerging business leaders, current business leaders and people that are not leaders at all that wanna be leaders one day. Therefore, the book is providing research data, but it is written in a manner that is actually pleasing the general audience.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I appreciate and enjoy the book. And also, with the TEDx you refer to the Plato's allegory of the cave. You talk about that in your TEDx. So, if people wanna find out more, because that's a fantastic story, they can watch that. I really enjoy this conversation and appreciate you joining me in the conversation for Partnering Leadership.

Thank you so much, Maja.

Maja Zelihic: 

Thank you so much and thank you to your audience members. Thank you for the opportunity.

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