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Successful leadership requires you to navigate your way through all sorts of choppy organisational waters. You have to figure out what drives your customers and employees, negotiate with clients and suppliers, manage diversity and resolve conflicts – all in a day’s work
Learning to see situations from other perspectives can help with all of these challenges, says Gillian Ku, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS). Her research on perspective-taking – “the active cognitive process of imagining the world from another’s vantage point” – suggests many potential benefits for managers and leaders.
Perspective-taking is an important life skill, according to Dr Ku. It’s not to be confused with empathy, its emotional cousin. “Empathy is about feeling the other person’s feelings. Perspective-taking is a cognitive phenomenon, a thought process.” It’s a process that begins in childhood: we start out with a more egocentric worldview then learn to adjust how we see things to accommodate others’ viewpoints.
This is especially pertinent right now. “About half the world thinks Donald Trump is great, the other half thinks he’s horrible. There are two extremes, two polarised groups. How can they work together? If you’re a Democrat and you have friends who voted for Trump, do you just de-friend them – or do you try to picture where they’re coming from?”
Psychologists have been investigating the phenomenon of perspective-taking for nearly a century, so we know a lot about how it works. Let’s take just one example of how perspective-taking could have an impact on managers. It has repeatedly been found to decrease prejudice and stereotyping, which ties in with organisations’ need to harness the benefits of employee diversity.
One experiment invited people to attribute various characteristics to an African-American man in a photograph. The list they could choose from included stereotypical traits (some positive, such as "musical" or "athletic", and some negative, such as "aggressive") as well as neutral ones (such as "forgetful"). The researchers discovered that people who had first been asked to put themselves in the man’s shoes and spend a few minutes writing a “day in the life” essay about him went on to attribute fewer of the stereotypical traits to him than those who hadn’t.
Perspective-taking has also been shown to help negotiators gain a larger share of the pie (empathy, on the other hand, tends to result in giving too much of the pie away). It can also help them create value and maximise, even expand, the size of the pie, for example by adding issues that weren’t initially on the table.
“During perspective-taking, it seems that negotiators are paying attention not only to their own self-interests, but also to their opponent’s interests and priorities, thereby facilitating information exchange and problem-solving," says Dr Ku.
Evidence also suggests that consciously focusing on perspective-taking can make teams more effective and more creative and can prompt managers into deeper, more complex thinking that results in better outcomes. It is clear why perspective-taking is a desirable leadership skill. How then can people increase their perspective-taking ability?
Some factors make people naturally more likely to take others’ perspectives. We know, for example, that cognitive capacity can affect perspective-taking. How well you perceive, differentiate and integrate information has a bearing on your ability to look at a situation from a different perspective, as do factors such as being pressed for time or simply having too much to think about (cognitive overload).
If we’re sensitive to other people and keen to help, we’re more likely to make the effort to take their perspective. If we’re emotionally intelligent, we’re more likely to perspective-take.
If someone is more powerful than you, they are less likely to need to consider your perspective – and even less so if they are more inclined to focus on their own needs and you are in a competitive context.
“Regardless of how far a person is naturally inclined to take others’ perspectives, we know that stimulating this process can make a difference. So politicians heading into crucial negotiations could benefit from developing this skill,” Dr Ku claims. This is particularly true for those who seem unshakably sure of their own perspective.
“Will Trump need to learn to take perspectives? On the face of it, yes. Given the extreme nature of the comments he has made so far, it would be useful for him to do a better job of thinking about other people’s perspectives.
“All that’s required is for a person to actively consider what the other person’s situation is like, to walk a mile in their shoes, look at the world from their vantage point. You can see immediate effects with just three-to-five minutes of mental simulation. More research is needed to find out how long the effects last, but it’s an encouraging starting-point.”
So far, so good. But there’s a twist in the tale: Perspective-taking doesn’t always have such benevolent and positive effects.
For instance, in 2013, Niro Sivanthan, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS, and others, explored perspective-taking in the contexts of cooperation versus competition. They asked participants to engage in a game in which they had limited shared resources and measured whether participants would lie about the amount of resources they had if they viewed each other as competitor or collaborator. In competitive situations, perspective-takers expected their counterpart to behave unethically and trusted them less, which resulted in their deceiving them more.
“These negative effects of perspective-taking on ethical behaviour in competitive contexts seem to create a self-protection-at-any-cost mindset,” says Dr Ku, referring to Dr Sivanthan’s research. “The combination of perspective-taking and competition changes the golden rule of ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ to ‘Do unto others as you think they will try to do unto you’.”
Similarly, when individuals identify strongly with and are highly committed to their own group, perspective-taking can result in negative effects for those who aren’t in the fold. In addition, perspective-takers who strongly identify with their own group feel little guilt toward wronged people on the outside.
Dr Ku suggests how to reconcile perspective-taking’s diverse benevolent and malevolent effects: “The world is filled with mixed-motive interactions. When a perspective-taker interacts with someone who has positive intentions we get all these positive effects. But when a perspective-taker interacts with someone who has negative intentions towards them, they act more competitively and less ethically versus the control condition. All of a sudden it becomes a ‘fight fire with fire’ mentality.
“As such, perspective-taking is a skill that allows individuals to navigate a world that is filled with mixed motives, a world where some people are cooperative and collaborative and others are competitive and merciless.”