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The capacity to be able to take multiple perspectives is the very definition of adult development. This episode explores what it means to take multiple perspectives, and why it might be useful for executive leaders.

I was listening to a podcast this week where Malcolm Gladwell was lamenting the work-from-home experiment as a destroyer of meaning for people and the death of organisational culture.

If you’ve followed my work for any time at all, you’ll know that I think that hybrid working comes with a whole host of problems – and they’re the wicked, gnarly ones that will be difficult to resolve and will create lots of unintended consequences. So I should have been agreeing.

Indeed, my default position is usually to agree with Malcolm Gladwell. I saw him speak in Manchester about 10 years. He started off slowly, a bit shy and unsure, tentative. And then, like a runner gets into their stride, as the minutes ticked on he found his story and he then talked for an hour without any notes and everyone in the room was mesmerised.

The host of the podcast was going along with him and I became increasingly uneasy with their conversation. I couldn’t help by think that they were only seeing this through their lens. What it meant for them in theirorganisations.

They’d created a perfectly tuned echo chamber, telling themselves how right ‘we’ were and contrasting it with how wrong ‘they’ are. It struck a cord because on the whole I tend to agree with their sentiments – but hearing them be so definitive and one-sided about it made them sound out-of-touch.

What if they – we – had the humility to accept that we don’t have all the answers; that the answers that we have might be wrong; and that those with insightful new perspectives might be located in the most unusual and humblest of places? This attitude has the potential to shift the dominant either/or narrative in our culture to an altogether more fruitful place.

The economist and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith summed it up when he said: ‘Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there’s is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.’

And yet, most of us know from our own experience that we get it wrong as often as we get it right. Think back to a time in your life when you received criticism from a boss, colleague or friend, or missed out on an opportunity that you thought you were perfect for.

Typically, in time, our distress about the event lessens and our views about it soften and change. Perhaps we realise that our colleague had a point; that our reaction was unreasonable or that the opportunity wouldn’t have been right for us after all. We are indeed – wise after the fact.

What has happened here? Usually, the reflections that we make over time help us to shift our perspective from our own, first-person view, to a wider, more nuanced perspective. We’re able to expand our personal viewpoint to include the wider context in which the event took place, and see our position as only one of many.

We locate ourselves as part of the wider action, rather than seeing ourselves at the heart of the matter. What if there was a way that we could tap into this wisdom, not after the fact, but when we actually need it?

This would be a powerful resource for us to use as leaders and as citizens. There is, and it’s known as perspective-taking. But it’s a skill and it requires practice.

What is perspective-taking?

Our perspectives are shaped by a number of factors. Our experiences, values, judgements, information, needs and desires all affect our outlook. Our outlook will also be impacted by our ability to deliberately step out of it and take on multiple perspectives so that we can more fully understand what’s going on in a given situation. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy at Harvard University advocate that leaders should operate both in and above the fray: that is, move backwards and forwards between being in the action and stepping back and observing the action. They use the metaphor of ‘getting off the dance floor and onto the balcony’.

You’re on the dance floor when you are in the action: a necessary place for leaders to be on occasion. But to understand what’s happening there – to really make sense of it – you need a different perspective. That’s when you get onto the balcony. It provides distance and an alternative vantage point.

Richard Boston and Karen Ellis, in a great little book called, Upgrade, outline four increasingly sophisticated ways of shifting our perspective. Each one building and expanding on the others, bringing in more of the context and broadening our perception of the factors influencing what’s going on.

Four perspectives

1st perspective – our own view

In the first-person perspective, we’re concerned only with our own point of view: ‘this is what I think; this is how I feel.’ We are caught up in our own story with little regard for others.

There are times when this is a necessary stance; but ultimately if we can’t move out of our own take on things, we’re unlikely to be able to take on the views of others or be able to have a fuller viewpoint of what’s going on.

Most well-developed adults are able to move from this limited perspective to one that can at least try to understand the thoughts and feelings of the other person. This is the second-person perspective and it helps us to understand what’s going on for the other person. We get there not by imagination, but by inquiry. It’s only by asking others their views – along with their thoughts, feelings and emotions – that we can assume with any certainty that we understand what’s going on for the other person. We all have examples of where we did this and were surprised by what we discovered; and we can all recall other times when we didn’t bother to ask: either not caring enough to know, or by defaulting to our own assumptions.

2nd perspective – the other’s view

In this second person-perspective you can take the stance of: ‘I can understand and appreciate how you feel – even if I don’t agree.’ By helping us to understand others better, it helps us relate better to them.  This represents a significant shift in our ability to be effective. We become better at predicting what might happen in a situation; we are better able to appreciate others. And since we now understand their actions and motivations better, we can in turn influence them. Crucially, this second-person perspective helps us to build empathy – the relational glue that holds us together.

3rd perspective – the outside view

As powerful as it is, on its own the second-person perspective doesn’t provide us with enough distance to understand what’s happening in a situation. Our own view is limited – and by extension other peoples’ views are also limited. Taking a step back further still – to a third-person observer perspective – allows us to take a more objective position on what’s going on; less caught up in the personal drama of the individuals. It’s from here that we are able to take on multiple perspectives and look at a situation through the eyes of several different people or stakeholders. It’s in this third-person perspective that we’re able to move above the content of the problem to look at its structure, and in so doing we’re better able to work with it to solve it.

For example, imagine you are being constantly caught up in the interpersonal dramas of two highly strung colleagues. From a first-person perspective you might feel frustrated and annoyed. You’re focused on the impact their behaviour is having on you.

From a second-person perspective you might be able to empathise because the amount of work loaded onto one highly able colleague is causing resentment of the other colleague, who has less to do. You can also see the perspective of this other colleague, who is resisting taking on more work due to his other commitments.

In the third-person perspective you might ask, ‘What’s really going on here?’ It’s in this space that we lift ourselves up to take the helicopter view. Or, get off the dance floor and onto the balcony. Crucially, we resist ‘taking on’ one or other of the points of view of the individuals involved and instead look at the interaction and the situation without the biases, filters and mind traps that are inevitable when we occupy either the first- or second-person perspective. This ability to take on multiple perspectives provides a breadth and depth to our understanding that we’re unable to gain when we only look for our own or the other person’s point of view.

4th perspective – the meta view

Now envisage that above all of the noise of multiple perspectives, there’s a deeper structure to what’s going on. This is the fourth-person perspective. Perhaps the tension between these colleagues is happening because poor performance-management structures mean that able people are loaded with more and more work without addressing the underlying issue that other employees are not carrying their weight. Or perhaps it is due to an avoidant style of management at the leadership level.

The ability to take this meta-perspective is what’s required in the fourth-person ‘witness’ perspective. From this stance, we’re aware of the context in which relationships play out. We see that there is a deep structure to the nature of the problem and that the people involved are often unwittingly caught up in that structure.

From this perspective you’re watching you sense-making on the balacony and can tell you’re in a dance hall. It’s a more meta awareness.

(Don’t you just hate facebook for commandeering that otherwise brilliant word?)

Becoming more practiced in shifting between different perspectives is a critical leadership skill. The people we lead need us to be in the action at times, but they also require of us the ability and willingness to move to a more holistic perspective; actually ‘seeing’ the problem differently.

I’d invite you as a leader to consider which perspective you operate in most of the time, and how you might develop a greater capacity to diagnose and solve organisational challenges by being able to move between different perspectives.

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What’s required from Executive Leaders has changed. Find out how executive leaders and executive teams can survive and thrive in our disrupted world. Interviews with CEOs and insights from Waldencroft’s Dr Jacqueline Conway.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Dr Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they fully step into their collective enterprise-wide leadership, helping them transform their impact and effectiveness.

Jacqueline is Waldencroft’s Managing Director. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.