The Science of Perspective Taking

Categories: Behavior change, Employee Engagement, LeadershipAuthor:

Perspective taking is the ability to see things from other people’s viewpoint, to put yourself in their shoes.  I believe that this skill is so fundamental that people cannot become transformational leaders without it.

Behaviorally speaking, there are three components of perspective taking.

1)   Understanding the reinforcers and punishers of others

2)   Knowing something about the learning history of others

3)   Understanding the impact of environment on behavior

Research suggests that people who rate themselves as excellent at perspective taking tend to be poor at it.  People who are good at perspective taking question whether they have truly considered all of the factors necessary to understand the situation and behavior.

Benefits of Perspective Taking

The better people get at perspective taking the harder it becomes to make decisions that negatively impact employees.  We generally try to avoid harming ourselves and so when we get good at perspective taking and can imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we will probably try to avoid harming them, too.

Research suggests that transformational leaders are better at perspective taking.  Because of this, they often manage using relationships.  They understand their people and know how to subtly shift the environment to create change.  Transactional leaders, on the other hand, rely more on tangible leadership tools like incentive and punishment systems.  Stronger consequences that are likely to shift most people’s behavior are used indiscriminately.  It’s less personalized and means that while they might overall get the kind of behavior they want, they are probably not getting the best from their people.

Perspective Taking is a Learned Skill

It turns out, we aren’t born with a natural ability to take perspective.  As children, after a certain age, we get better at it and it can be taught.  In fact, research suggests that our ability to take the perspectives of others doesn’t generalize all that well to new situations, as children or as adults.  So, it takes practice and effort.

In fact, as people move up in leadership ranks, they tend to regress in perspective taking and start to assume that people around them agree with their perspective.  This is because the environment starts to shift as power increases.  People become more timid about expressing dissenting opinions because the perceived, and maybe the real, negative consequences get larger.  As leaders move up in rank, they have to work harder to hear different viewpoints.  For many, it’s just too easy to get comfortable with people around them agreeing.  This means we should start teaching leaders this skill early on to avoid problems later.

How can we improve our perspective taking skills?

  1. Learn more about behavioral principles and the impact of the environment on behavior
  2. Ask good questions
  3. Get good at observing behavior

I am a firm believer that as people learn and practice behavioral science they become more effective.  And more empathetic.  And more likely to act in accordance with their values.  So, in 2013, consider working on your perspective taking skills through practicing behavioral science.

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