The job of a leader is complex as it is, and it gets even more so during difficult times. After the results of the recent presidential elections in the US exposed a deep political divide in the country, numerous educational and professional institutions have been attempting to reconcile various perspectives so as to move forward in their respective pursuits. Many of these institutions prioritize and celebrate diversity, and one of the questions that faces their leaders today is about what they can do to effectively manage people from diverse ethnic and political backgrounds. While this US election presents a recent and salient example of troubled times, it isn’t the only one. Organizational life is often marked by conflicts between different groups of people, and leaders are required to handle these conflicts. What can leaders do to manage such situations effectively?
While there can be many answers to this question, I suggest that perspective-taking is an important one of them. Perspective-taking has been defined as the “active cognitive process of imagining the world from another’s vantage point or imagining oneself in another’s shoes to understand their visual viewpoint, thoughts, motivations, intentions, and/or emotions” (Ku, Wang, & Galinsky, 2015, p. 94). Even though perspective-taking (which is a cognitive process) has been argued to be different from empathy (which is understood to have an emotional component,) this distinction does not seem to be universally agreed upon. For instance, Coleman (2007) writes about three different types of empathy – emotional, cognitive, and compassionate, and refers to cognitive empathy as perspective-taking. To clarify my usage in this post, I will consider perspective-taking to be different from empathy, and will use the term to refer to one’s ability to actively engage in the process of understanding someone else’s point of view.
If we consider the context of the US elections, perspective-taking would entail actively seeking out someone with a different political view than one’s own and listening to what they have to say with an open mind and a genuine desire to understand. Interestingly, to really put oneself in someone else’s shoes, one needs to first take off one’s own shoes: It is only by suspending our own judgments and preconceived notions that we can truly take another’s perspective. By demonstrating this skill themselves, leaders can encourage their teams to do the same. This isn’t easy, of course, and given the delicacy of the situation, requires skill.
However, perspective-taking of this sort can be an important step towards a greater understanding of the situation and of the other person, which is crucial for an institution that wants its people to connect and cooperate with one another. In fact, research on perspective-taking indicates that it leads to enhanced interpersonal and intergroup relations.
Perspective-taking has been shown to increase positive connections, enhance coordination, and increase generosity and helping behavior in interpersonal relationships (Ku et al., 2015). Perspective-taking has also been shown to improve intergroup relations by reducing prejudice, stereotyping, and discriminatory views (Ku et al., 2015). Difficult times in an organization can be filled with negativity and a lack of connection among people, and leaders can employ perspective-taking as a tool to infuse more positivity in such situations. Furthermore, perspective-taking can be a critical skill for organizations that value diversity: it can enable leaders to leverage the benefits of diversity while reducing the challenges that arise when people with diverse ethnicities, views, and opinions come together.
It is important to note that perspective-taking is not an unmitigated good and can even have a negative impact. For instance, perspective-taking seems to have different effects in cooperative vs. competitive contexts: it reduces egocentrism and increases moral behavior in cooperative contexts and increases egocentric and self-serving behavior in competitive contexts (Ku et al., 2015). Similarly, if members of a group deeply identify with their group, attempts at understanding another group’s perspective result in an increase in negative judgments about the other group, perhaps because the context appears to be one of competition (Ku et al., 2015). It is important, then, for leaders to be aware of the nuances of perspective-taking so that they can use this tool effectively to foster greater understanding and cooperation in their organizations, while preventing its detrimental effects.
In essence, there are pros and cons to perspective-taking and while the pros seem to outweigh the cons, an effective use of this tool to manage conflicting teams and individuals requires leaders to have a nuanced understanding of how and when to lead from someone else’s shoes.
Ku, G., Wang, C. S., & Galinsky, A. D. (2015). The promise and perversity of perspective-taking in organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior, 35, 79-102. doi:10.1016/j.riob.2015.07.003
Goleman, D. (2007, June 12). Three Kinds of Empathy: Cognitive, Emotional, Compassionate. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www.danielgoleman.info/three-kinds-of-empathy-cognitive-emotional-compassionate/