Published July 26, 2018

Do You Have the Most Important Skill for Working on a Diverse Team?—David Livermore—2018 GLS Faculty Spotlight

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David Livermore is a leading voice on Cultural Intelligence in our world. We are honored to welcome him to The Global Leadership Summit 2018, where he will share his research on how leaders can relate effectively across diverse situations.

Whether I’m talking with my kids, interacting with our staff or speaking to a group of executives, one of the themes I talk about more than any other is the importance of “perspective taking.”

Perspective taking is the ability to step outside our own experience and consider something from another person’s point of view.

It’s something we do unconsciously all the time. What kind of gift would they enjoy? How is my colleague going to interpret this email? What does that group think about me? But we’re less likely to engage in perspective taking if the individuals with a different perspective aren’t part of our in-group.

Research reveals that perspective taking is a skill that can be developed, and that’s good news. Perspective taking is one of the most critical skills needed to manage unconscious bias and lead with cultural intelligence. You can’t motivate people and negotiate effectively if you don’t know how others think and feel about something. There’s mounting evidence that perspective taking makes a critical difference in whether diversity training actually works.

Most of us do perspective taking quite naturally with those from our in-group—our friends, loved ones and people like us. But we’re less likely to slow down and consider another’s perspective if they are outside our in-group.

Think of the age-old psychological notion of fundamental attribution error—the assumption that someone’s negative behavior stems from a character flaw, while excusing the same behavior in ourselves due to external circumstances.

Here’s how it works: If someone’s phone rings in the movie theatre, my default assumption is that they’re a rude or forgetful person who is inconsiderate of others. But if my phone rings, surely people know it’s only because I’m awaiting an urgent phone call in the midst of a crisis. This isn’t my usual behavior! According to fundamental attribution error, I’m more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to people who “look like me.”

The greater the cultural distance, the more important it is to exercise perspective taking.

Use this informal inventory to reflect on your perspective taking skill:

  • When an acquaintance asks where you live, do you give the same response to someone on the other side of the world as you do someone from your own region? (e.g. “Grand Rapids, Michigan” versus “In the central part of the U.S., near Chicago.”)
  • Think about a work challenge you’re currently facing right now… To what degree can you accurately describe the perspectives of 3-5 colleagues who are also facing the same challenge?
  • Identify an issue you feel strongly about… To what degree can you offer a coherent argument that represents the opposite of your perspective?
  • Notice how often you say things like, “As you know…” or “Given your experience in this area…”

Perspective taking doesn’t mean you give up your own perspective or lack conviction. In fact, this is one of the critical differences between perspective taking and empathy. Empathy may go too far in some situations. A member of the special forces who empathizes with the enemy or a sales person who is distraught about a customer’s complaints may fail to fulfill the mission of their respective organizations. But there is no way to succeed without some understanding of the “other side’s” perspective.

Perspective taking is best developed in relationship. Many people change, or at least re-evaluate their dogmatic views about religion or politics, when a friend or loved one is the one who represents the opposing perspective. Conversation and dialogue are the best ways to learn about another’s perspective.

Here are other practical steps you can use to develop the skill of perspective taking:

1. Curate a more diverse social media feed. You’ll quickly see wildly different interpretations of the same current events.

2. Consciously consider the differences in how someone with an opposite position would visit a new initiative. For example, an individual with a low uncertainty avoidance orientation may be more drawn to something new than someone who is high uncertainty avoidance.

3. Use Jeff Bezos of Amazon’s “empty-chair strategy” at important meetings. By using an empty chair to represent important individuals who are not present at the meeting, attendees will be more aware of missing perspectives.

4. When discussing a challenging issue with someone, see if each of you can articulate the other person’s perspective. Clarify whether you have an understanding of each other’s perspective.

5. In the words of our friend and colleague, “Argue like you’re right. Listen like you’re wrong.” Seek to understand. It’s one of our mantras at the Cultural Intelligence Center. We know that we don’t do it perfectly ourselves, but we’re resolved to keep at it. I hope you will continue the pursuit with us.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn, here.

About the Author
Global Leadership Network

Global Leadership Network

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The Global Leadership Network is a community committed to learning from each other and using our influence to accomplish God’s purposes on earth. No matter where your influence is, when you commit to grow your leadership, everyone around you wins—businesses work for good, communities are transformed and churches thrive! Both global and diverse, our network includes partners in 1,400+ cities and 135+ countries. We are committed to deliver fresh, actionable and inspiring leadership content both at The Global Leadership Summit, and year-round through our digital platforms.

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