In his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” author Steven Covey included an ambiguous optical illusion that is open to different interpretations. To some readers, the image is that of an old lady looking downward, wearing a shawl and a fur coat. To others, it is the portrait of a young, aristocratic woman with her head turned sideways. Covey uses the image to speak about paradigms and the way that our past thinking and inclinations can significantly alter how we look at things and respond to situations. (More examples of such illusions can be viewed here.)
I was reminded of this recently during a conversation with an old colleague from a school where I used to teach. Not only was she one of the school’s teachers, she was also the activities director. She recalled that one winter weekend, the school had gone on a retreat and faculty was able to attend with their families. I came along with my wife and three young children. As my colleague remembered it, the kids were having a blast during a ski outing and had managed to get themselves all full of snow, much to the chagrin of their father. My colleague had been pleased that the children were so wet; to her it meant that they were really enjoying themselves. I, on the other hand, chose to focus on the involved cleanup and clothes changing that awaited me.
As we know, different viewpoints are based off of the unique approaches, biases and inclinations that we bring to situations. However, where we get ourselves into trouble, particularly in the workplace, is when we assume that our perspective is the only one that exists, let alone the only one that matters.
Such narrow thinking can be even more damaging for leaders. Not only does it prevent them from grasping opportunities and identifying challenges that only others are attuned to, but it can lead to discontent and frustration in others who do not feel heard or valued.
How can we make sure to avoid such thinking and ensure that we not only become more mindful of other views but actively seek them out?
First, we should understand where our resistance to such thinking comes from. Why are we so programmed to block out the possibility of other thoughts and perspectives and to defend our own stances with such vigor?
One factor is our inherent desire to be right. Being right affirms and inflates our self-worth. It’s part of being human to want to have our way, to be correct and use that to control others. By necessity we come to believe that anyone who disagrees with us must be wrong, because we assume that only one of us could be correct, and it definitely isn’t him.
Some argue (correctly, in my opinion,) that this craving is reinforced by our educational system. Historically, the focus in school has been about independent work and our ability as individuals to demonstrate mastery and correctness. (This has changed somewhat with a “21st century education” focus on collaboration and idea sharing, but we are far from a genuine paradigm shift in this regard.) Our schools reward correct answers with higher grades, which can impact subsequent schooling and employment opportunities.
Another culprit is the talking heads of political debate. We regularly view debates over issues on talk shows and in political forums where the end goal is not to arrive at a mutually beneficial solution but rather to ram our views down each other’s throats and see who possesses better one-liners and debating tactics.
But if we are honest with ourselves we know that being right is not an absolute position. Particularly in today’s complex work environment, there can oftentimes be more than one correct position on how to approach something. And even if we were to argue that only one perspective can stand in the end, why not create a culture in which dissention is valued as a means of fleshing out ideas and vetting options to help arrive at the very best solution?
So how can we, as leaders, become better listeners and more open to others’ ideas? The following are some ideas to consider:
- Keep your mind open – One of the easiest ways to fall into the “I am right” trap is to determine the decision or direction before discussing things with others. Even if you then bring the issue to another person or the group, you will want to defend your position. Instead, remind yourself that there are likely multiple approaches and perspectives and there’s a good chance that someone else’s views will help you clarify and solidify your own or perhaps open you up to a whole new perspective.
- Create opportunities for conversation – Don’t wait for issues or concerns to arise before bringing folks together to discuss them. Establish regular meeting times to reflect upon and solve issues. If there are none, present hypothetical dilemmas for everyone to review and debate. This offers the added benefit of allowing people to consider solutions without having to defend past actions or positions, removing personal bias.
- Take on others’ perspectives – Think about issues from the perspective of those who are impacted. The rank and file will often be more focused on or concerned with how decisions will affect them and their jobs and job security and leaders would be wise to keep those issues at the forefront of their minds. As they are speaking, be empathetic and seek to objectively consider their position. As Stephen Covey phrased it, “seek to understand before being understood.”
- Do a role reversal – Clearly state your position, your point of view, while your “opponent” listens carefully for the details, taking notes, if needed. Then your partner explains his/her position, while you listen. No discussion or interrupting allowed. Then switch roles and pretend to be the other person presenting “your” argument. Take note of what it feels to be in that position, and see if the other’s point of view makes more sense, now that you are in his/her shoes.
- Ask yourself, "Do I want to be right or do I want to be happy?" – At the end of the day, you often will have to choose between the satisfaction that comes with being correct and being happy. As you relinquish self-centeredness and look to the needs of those around you, you develop intimacy and connectedness. As Robin Sharma once said, “The business of business is relationships; the business of life is human connection.”
This post first appeared in SmartBlog on Leadership.