Perspective-taking as a Leadership Practice

"Perspective taking" is the ability to view a situation from another person’s (or group’s) perspective. In the Leadership Agility framework, this psychological term is translated into a more practical one, relevant to leadership: Stakeholder understanding. As we know, how a leader manages their stakeholder relationships is central to the success of any change initiative they undertake. And how well a leader understands various stakeholder perspectives on their initiative is key to gaining their alignment and support.

Stages of development in perspective-taking capacity 

The Leadership Agility framework identifies the three "levels" of leadership agility most relevant for today's organizations: Expert, Achiever, and Catalyst. This is a sequence of developmental stages. For example, research has shown that it’s not until around age 6 that we begin to realize that others experience objects from a different physical perspective than we do. It’s not until pre-adolescence that it dawns on us that others might see us differently than we do, which is one reason for the pronounced self-consciousness felt in early adolescence. 

After adolescence, contrary to what was believed several decades ago, further stages of development are possible, but not automatic. This is true for the Expert, Achiever, and Catalyst stages of personal development, which underlie the three levels of agility just mentioned. Because it is a developmental sequence, leaders who operate at the Expert level need to grow into the Achiever level before they can develop into Catalysts. People are not inherently limited in the developmental stages they can grow into. Instead, this depends on a person's interest in further development (like wanting to become a more effective leader) and the developmental opportunities available to them. Experience has shown the Leadership Agility Coaching is one of the most powerful opportunities for developing new levels of agility.

At each level a leader's ability to understand stakeholders deepens and broadens. As our adult perspective-taking capacity develops, we move beyond snap judgments about what others are thinking, toward a deeper, more complex and appreciative understanding of their perspectives, even those that may differ markedly from our own. Here's an overview of how perspective-taking (stakeholder understanding) develops and becomes more agile through the three key levels:

Expert and Achiever level perspective-taking 

According to our research, roughly 55% of managers currently lead at the Expert level of agility.  At this stage a person’s mindset about leadership tends to be that, if you lead by using your authority and expertise, others should follow. There is little true interest in learning and taking into account the perspectives of key stakeholders. In today’s business environment, this approach often doesn’t work very well. 

Roughly 35% of managers have reached the Achiever stage, where one can begin to put oneself in others’ shoes. (Perspective-taking is a necessary condition for empathy, especially what is called “accurate empathy”). As leaders develop into this level of agility, it becomes clear to them that, to be an effective leader, they need to understand where their key stakeholders are coming from, create a highly motivating vision, and secure the buy-in needed for sustained commitment. 

For leaders who hang out primarily at the Expert level, their growing edge is to develop into the Achiever orientation just described. One way leadership coaches can help these leaders develop a more Achiever-like perspective-taking capacity is to ask questions like: How do you think your key stakeholders view your change initiative? What are their interests and concerns? OR: What do you think makes work most exciting and satisfying for your direct reports? OR: What pressures might top management be under might cause them to act the way they’ve been acting lately? 

Development of perspective-taking capacity goes hand-in-hand with an increased willingness and ability to step back from being embedded in one’s own perspective. By asking these questions and giving “homework” that encourages clients to continue this kind of inquiry between sessions, coaches can help leaders cultivate perspective-taking as a leadership practice – something that will stand them in good stead, at work and beyond, for years to come. 

Catalyst level perspective-taking 

Leaders now face a new challenge. The heightened pace of change and increased complexity and interdependence in today’s work environment is calling them to further.develop their perspective-taking capacity. At the Achiever level we can imagine ourselves in another person’s circumstances, but we implicitly assume they would react to these circumstances as we would react. At the Catalyst level, we can imagine not only how we would feel in the other person’s circumstances, but also what it would be like to be them in these circumstances. Only about 10% of leaders currently operate at this level.

This is an especially important capacity for leaders to exercise have in situations where they disagree with others yet need to come to resolution for concerted action. (For a “role reversal” exercise coaches can use to help leaders develop this kind of perspective-taking, see pages 207-08 of the Leadership Agility book). 

Catalyst-level perspective-taking has other features as well: Whatever your outward differences with others, you see other people first and foremost as fellow human-beings, engendering an implicit attitude of respect, even amid significant disagreements. It also becomes easier to see and understand the assumptions underlying your own perspective and that of others, making it easier to engage in creative, collaborative problem-solving. 

Perspective-taking as one type of leadership agility 

As noted earlier, in the Leadership Agility framework, “perspective-taking” is called “stakeholder understanding.” Stakeholder agility is one of four types of agility that emerged from the 5 years of research that went into writing the book. For an overview of the four types of agility, see my blog post, "How to use the Leadership Agility Compass."

The Leadership Agility 360 

To provide leaders with feedback on the extent to which they embody all four types of agility, we developed, in partnership with Cambria Consulting, the Leadership Agility 360. This instrument provides feedback on each type of agility in three distinct leadership contexts: Leading organizational change, leading teams, and "pivotal conversations," discussions with stakeholders who have perspectives that differ from one's own on specific issues. To learn more about what makes the Leadership Agility 360 uniquely relevant for our times and about how to get certified to use it, go here.

To learn about our Leadership Agility Coaching Certification Program, which focuses on how to help leaders develop to their next level in all four types of agility, go here.


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