When Your Perspective Is Mistaken
We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t truly understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” The expression is meant to encourage empathy, but how practical is it, particularly if the other person’s “shoes” are so radically different from your own that you can’t even squeeze your feet into them?
And yet, that’s exactly what perspective-taking seeks to do: to perceive a concept or situation from another’s point of view. In recent years, leaders have doubled down on this idea to build skills such as empathy, enhance diversity, and retain employees. Many managers think they’re doing a good job of this when they ask a few employees for their opinions, but then proceed to do whatever the manager thought was best in the first place. The conversation might go something like this:
Manager: I’m thinking of giving everyone a one-time bonus for their hard work to complete this project on time. What do you think?
Employee: Wow, money’s always nice, but …
Manager: But what? They can choose a fancy dinner, a weekend getaway, anything they want!
Employee: You’re right, no one will turn down money, but some people might want different things.
Manager: Different things? With this bonus, they can buy different things. Kelly and Jordan thought it was a great idea.
Manager: Thanks for your input. This is going to be great!
After having this type of conversation several times, the manager is probably certain he knows what his employees want. But he’s most likely wrong. Maybe they value time over money, and they’d rather have an extra week of paid time off. But because the manager didn’t listen to what his employee said and instead tried to convert her to his point of view, he couldn’t consider the idea. What’s more, the fact that he’s in a position of power prevented the employee from speaking frankly.
That’s the irony with perspective-taking. It increases people’s certainty that they understand other points of view, but most of the time, they really don’t, according to Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago. In 25 studies where subjects were asked to put themselves into another person’s shoes before answering questions about them, perspective-taking sometimes increased their confidence about their answers but never their accuracy.
That disconnect between confidence and accuracy is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people who lack knowledge or skills in certain areas overestimate their abilities. In the realm of perspective-taking, this can be particularly harmful: When you misinterpret a person’s true perspective while being supremely confident you know what they want, it shuts down lines of communication and leaves employees feeling ignored and misunderstood.
To help avoid this situation, let’s dig into the most common mistakes of perspective-taking:
Mistake No. 1: Trying to see things from someone else’s point of view but still seeing through our own eyes.
Like the manager above, when you too quickly step into another person’s shoes, you often think about what you would do in their situation because you’re taking your blind spots and biases with you.
Every brain has biases, or shortcuts evolutionarily designed to keep us safe. Biases aren’t categorically bad. For example, expedience bias — the preference to act quickly rather than taking the time to fully understand all nuances of a situation — is sometimes necessary for leaders to efficiently accomplish goals. But deliberately slowing down to see others’ perspectives can help leaders make better decisions. Similarly, experience bias, which leads us to believe that the way we see things is the objective reality, can lead us to view other points of view through a distorted, judgmental lens: How can they believe that nonsense?
Solution: Practice perspective-getting. Instead of perspective-taking, which is the passive process of using your existing knowledge about another person to put yourself in their shoes, try to actually get perspectives. Research indicates that getting another person’s perspective through active listening and asking questions increases accuracy, whereas perspective-taking does not. “Increasing interpersonal accuracy seems to require gaining new information rather than utilizing existing knowledge about another person,” the researchers conclude.
Mistake No. 2: Not realizing that power dynamics get in the way.
Power affects perspective-taking in two ways: The more powerful person doesn’t consider the less powerful person’s perspective, and the less powerful one doesn’t share their true perspective. In the exchange above, the employee eventually gave up trying to explain what the manager might be missing.
Research has shown that having, or even feeling like you have, relative power in a situation produces increased activity in the brain’s behavioral approach system (BAS). This reward-seeking system leads to greater goal orientation, optimism, and focus on vision. Those are all important qualities for leaders, but they can also cause perspective blindness. When perspective blindness leads powerful people to pursue reward and status at the expense of others, it creates a toxic culture that discourages honesty.
Solution: Ask in a way that invites candid answers. Recognize that because of power dynamics, employees might not feel psychologically safe enough to respond frankly to your questions. They might think their answers could cause you to view them unfavorably and close off future opportunities.
Take the time to formulate your questions in a way that will provide the information you need in a nonjudgmental manner. For example, saying, “I’d like to hear your thoughts on this …” is a good lead-in. Then, avoid interjecting your own thoughts and opinions or those of other co-workers.
Even in the healthiest of work environments, employees still might not feel comfortable sharing their opinions. Consider allowing them to do so anonymously through a suggestion box or survey.
Mistake No. 3: Listening to respond, not to understand.
Understanding another’s perspective requires listening deeply, but leaders often want to fix things, so they listen for opportunities to help. The person speaking wants to be heard, and they feel neither heard nor helped when the leader rushes to offer a solution. As we saw in the scenario above, it can seem dismissive.
Often leaders will suggest a different way to look at a situation before they actually understand the way the employee views it. When a leader explains their good intentions or reacts defensively, they make the conversation about the leader’s feelings and not about the employee’s perspective.
Solution: Listen deeply, and follow through with actions. Take notes and ask follow-up questions to truly understand an employee’s point of view, without contributing your own thoughts and reactions. Remember, you’re trying to learn their perspective, not evaluate it.
Once you’ve understood their perspective, don’t stop there. Employees will only feel heard and comfortable to share opinions in the future if they see their ideas are being used to guide actions. For an employee, there’s nothing worse than giving your heartfelt opinion and then having your manager discount it and do the opposite. Of course, you can’t fulfill every employee’s personal wish list, but acknowledging perspectives and showing how you use this information to take action will go a long way in making employees feel heard.
A different way
After reflection, the manager realized that he might have mistaken the employee’s perspective. Intrigued by the idea that employees might want something other than money, he asks if they could talk again.
Manager: You were saying that people might want something other than a bonus?
Employee: I’m saying it’s possible. We should ask them to be sure.
Manager: How do you think we should do that?
Employee: Sometimes it’s hard to be put on the spot. How about an anonymous survey?
Manager: Good idea. Thanks for your input. This is going to be great!