Born with congenital cataracts in both eyes, I could only distinguish between light and shadows. Thankfully, six surgeries have restored some of my sight. Still considered legally blind, I don’t need to look far to be reminded of external limitations (pun intended).
Overcoming the Challenges of Actual External Limitations
One “actual” external limitation I face is reading small print or signs that are too high up or far away. Since my lenses were removed from both eyes during my first surgeries, when I need to focus, I need to look closely at, or move toward, what I want to see. I’ve been able to overcome this limitation using special reading glasses, a monocular, a smart phone, and other technology.
In the construction industry, let’s use foundation as an example of an “actual” external limitation. The area of the foundation will only accommodate a specific building size and type. Even with advances in technology, there is only so much building you can set on a specific foundation.
Exploring Perceived External Limitations
One “perceived” external limitation we each face is how others view us and our abilities based on nothing more than what they think. I’m reminded of my transition from tech support to training almost three decades ago. I was invited to apply for a position as a classroom instructor based on technical knowledge, customer service skills, and my ability to simplify complex technical issues.
For the interview, I met with the training manager and my tech support manager. Much to my surprise, my tech support manager made the interview much more challenging than it needed to be. His questions to me were based on his perceived external limitations. In other words, how he thought the world around me would limit my success.
His first question was, “How are you going to answer participant questions if you can’t see them raise their hands?”
I responded by saying that I’d invite them to verbally interrupt me, and I’d let them know I welcome their questions.
He then asked, “How will you read the participant’s flip charts from across the room?”
I explained that I could ask the participants to share what they had written, or I could just walk over to the charts and read them as necessary.
Next, he asked, “What about international travel? How will you navigate the Tokyo airport, for example, if you can’t read the signs?
I thought about this one for a moment before responding. Then, I asked if he could read Japanese. He said no, and I shared that I couldn’t either. Finally, I explained that I’d follow the crowd, and I wouldn’t be afraid to ask for assistance.
As he began to ask another question, my soon-to-be training manager stopped him saying she had heard enough. She was satisfied with my answers and ended the interview. Later, she shared with me that my ability to think on my feet and seek creative solutions would serve me well as a facilitator.
Navigating Beyond Perceived Limitations
I write and speak about "navigating beyond perceived limitations". Internal perceived limitations (limitations we put on ourselves) and external perceived limitations (limitations imposed by the outside world) can each keep us from being productive or achieving peak performance. How others perceive you and me is a fitting example of an external perceived limitation. Sometimes their prejudice becomes our limitation.
Prejudice is a preformed opinion, usually an unfavorable one, based on insufficient knowledge, irrational feelings, or inaccurate stereotypes. That presents a challenge in the construction industry. What others choose to see or believe can slow productivity and limit peak performance.
Maybe their beliefs are based on past experience or a resistance to change. Let's take that tech support manager. First, he had insufficient knowledge of what I could see, and never asked. He was afraid I'd get lost in Tokyo, yet his fears were irrational because I’ve learned to be resourceful. I suppose he thought that my limited sight equaled limited ability. However, those types of thought patterns are what create perceived external limitations.
In the construction industry, let’s use structure as an example of a “perceived” external limitation. There are common structures from office buildings to hospitals and retail space to residential. Structure is familiar. Even workers have come to expect a certain structure to the workday and the environment. The “we’ve always done it that way” mentality is a great example of that familiarity. Another is that only those who have worked in the field are qualified to be trainers. Yet, depending on the content and skills being taught, that may not be the case.
Addressing Perceptions Head On
When I accepted my current position as an instructor for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters at their International Training Center, I wondered how the men and women in the construction industry would respond to me in the classroom. There are very real “actual” external limitations that prevent me from doing most construction work. How would they respond to me, someone who didn’t come out of the field? I could have walked away from that opportunity, but I refused to create my own perceived external limitation. Instead, when conducting leadership, communication, or facilitation skills training, I found a way to make a connection.
Having spent time reflecting, I’ve discovered one key component. I’ve been open and honest about my situation from the start. When I introduce myself to a group, I immediately share information about my vision, and I add a little humor to lighten the mood. I find if I’m OK with me, so are they. Perhaps the best way for anyone in the construction industry to overcome perceived external limitations is to address the perception head on. I often encourage participants by reminding them that in any situation, they always have a choice. They can make excuses or they can make changes.
It’s time to change our response to perceived external limitations. Rather than accepting them and allowing them to hinder performance, perhaps opening a dialogue will help us to understand the potential for peak performance on an individual, team, company, and industry level.
Special thank you to Cal Beyer for peer editing this story.