In Canberra recently, I took a walk outside to enjoy the crisp, clear autumn air, breathing in the change of season, and admiring the early falling leaves of autumn. They're not as common a sight where I live (and certainly not this early in the year) so I took some photos: leaves on the trees, leaves on the lawn, leaves on the path. I was fascinated by the leaves.
And then I noticed one of the hotel staff sweeping the leaves off the path. No doubt his perspective of the autumn leaves and the change of season was a bit different to mine. To him, the leaves were probably just one more job to get done in the morning. The change of season just created a potential hazard or mess to be tidied up every morning.
Two people in the same place looking at the same thing and having two very different experiences.
My autumn leaves experience reminded me of tourists around Southbank in Brisbane taking photographs of our ubiquitous ibis. "Bin chickens" we call them because of their smelly presence and scavenging behaviour. They're more officially named Threskiornis molucca, long-legged, mostly white birds, with black tail feathers and a long black bill that curves down. We're a bit embarrassed by them, but tourists snap away with their cameras, apparently delighted by the bird's unique appearance. (And like the autumn leaves, they don't have to clean up after them.)
Two groups of people in the same place looking at the same thing and having two very different experiences.
It happens in our workplaces every day. We make sense of the same information or incidents in different ways. We draw different conclusions. We interpret different meanings. We see different possibilities or constraints.
From a decision making, influencing and leadership perspective, having access to different perspectives is critical. Indeed, a McKinsey report found that actively seeking different perspectives is one of four things that leaders in organizations with high-quality leadership teams typically display. (The other three are: Supporting others; Operating with a strong results orientation; and Solving problems effectively.)
"This trait is conspicuous in managers who monitor trends affecting organizations, grasp changes in the environment, encourage employees to contribute ideas that could improve performance, accurately differentiate between important and unimportant issues, and give the appropriate weight to stakeholder concerns," the McKinsey report notes. "Leaders who do well on this dimension typically base their decisions on sound analysis and avoid the many biases to which decisions are prone."
It makes sense, and particularly in times of increasing uncertainty and complexity. But it's often difficult to get access to different perspectives because conformity, risk-aversion and power can discourage different perspectives from being acknowledged or expressed. It's too easy - even natural - to see different perspectives as threats to the status quo, certainty or status. And it's very easy - and natural - to see the task of expressing a different perspective as being risky and disruptive.
"Multiple perspectives are easy to take when everyone is on the same side. They are variations on a similar theme and usually with shared values and beliefs," write Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston in Simple Habits for Complex Times. "The farther apart the sides move, though, the harder it is to imagine the other person as anything but an enemy that needs to be defeated. The very best leaders don't think in terms of us and them; they don't think in terms of enemies. Leadership is about gathering people together - even people with quite different goals and understandings - and helping them build bridges that take everyone to a new place" (pp 21-22).
Seeking different perspectives is active, initiating and intentional. It's about encouraging people to contribute, to speak up and to question. It's about modelling curiosity and communicating possibility.
Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba, says that "It's easier to win if you have people seeing things from different perspectives".
So how can we actively encourage different perspectives to ensure we are better able to win, build bridges and make wise decisions?
Ask more questions. Managing and leading can imply having the answers. But resolving complex challenges, building bridges between competing forces and identifying new approaches requires a disciplined approach to ensuring our decisions are wisely informed. And that takes an active commitment to deeper and broader inquiry. By asking more questions we invite more input, challenge assumptions and enable new ideas to emerge. Asking better questions models curiosity and encourages learning.
Listen to understand. It's not much use asking questions if we don't listen to the answers. And understanding - or trying to - is not the same as agreeing. But listening to understand requires that we silence the critic in our head that quickly rejects perspectives that don't match our own knowledge bank, experience or comfort zone. One test of this sort of listening is to try to articulate accurately and empathetically the other person's view. Better listening shows and builds respect, which is a foundation for creating the confidence required to contribute different perspectives. It also creates space for learning.
Introduce different voices. Jack Ma's quote above includes this observation: "Intelligent people need a fool to lead them. When a team's all a bunch of scientists, it is best to have a peasant lead the way. His way of thinking is different." That's a different perspective right there. It's easy for us to fall into routines adapted to group norms, assumptions and beliefs. It's easy to assemble and rely on like-minded people and shared perspectives. It can help to bring in an "outsider" to contribute, challenge and question in new ways. And if you can't do that, why not assign group members the task of representing the perspectives of audiences or stakeholders outside the group? But be ready for it to be challenging: diversity is not a soft option.
Seeking, encouraging and considering different perspectives isn't something we do as naturally as we might like to think. Edward de Bono, one of the leading authorities on conceptual thinking (he gave us the "six thinking hats"), reminds us that "unless we direct our attention, we only see familiar patterns". We need tools and intentional approaches to enable different perspectives to emerge.
People look at the same things from different perspectives - whether we're tourists, customers, suppliers, service providers, managers, technical experts, users, or team members. And in the increasingly complex environments in which we work, developing effective strategies for an uncertain future requires a conscious and intentional openness to different perspectives.
Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies
© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2017
References & Resources:
Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston (2015). Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful practices for leaders.
Claudio Feser, Fernando Mayol, Ramesh Srinivasan (2015). Decoding Leadership: What really matters, McKinsey Quarterly (January). https://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/leadership/decoding-leadership-what-really-matters
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