Navigating diverse perspectives in an increasingly complex world
I’ll restate this timeless quote by Marcus Aurelius from my previous article on perspectives to kick off the part two of the series.
"Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth." — Marcus Aurelius
As managers, you’re frequently applying your judgements to further the business and organizations, and as Amazon’s leadership principles dictate - you need to be right, a lot. Now, I believe it’s less important to be right, than get it right. Even when you’re right, if you’re not able to steer that right decision through the organization, you’ve failed. Getting it right, in an organizational context, can be quite messy. In order to do the right most thing for the customers, for the business and for the organizations (in priority order), you need to hear a myriad of, frequently differing, perspectives and make a decision that you can fully stand behind. Without this, at the very best you’re making suboptimal choices, and in the worst situations, making decisions that can have disastrous results with possibly a huge blast radius. This idea applies to almost every single aspect of a manager's job - hiring, performance management, conflict resolution, team development, cross functional influence, customer engagement, budget allocation, to name a few.
Every person also brings along with her, a unique set of characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, biases and fairness, perfections and flaws. In this very human context, it can be very tempting to favor a perspective which your subconscious may treat like the truth, at least in the moment. So the question arises - how do you navigate these different personas and diverse perspectives?
The key to developing a deeper understanding of the situation lies in empathy, as outlined in this snippet from 10x Perspectives.
Judge Kelly, Judge of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory (Australia) - Judge shows empathy and identifies with Novak’s perspective
"Can I ask you to pause here? … that medical exemption and the basis on which it was given, was separately given by a further independent expert specialist panel established by the Victorian state government. And that document was in the hands of the delegate. The point I'm somewhat agitated about is what more could this man have done?"
What is Empathy?
“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler.
Empathy is a key aspect of emotional intelligence. From psychologytoday, Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or fictional character. Developing empathy is crucial for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately. It involves experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, and enables prosocial or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced. Pay particular attention to the text in Italics above. Many of us engage in a conversation, mostly to respond with our own perspective. Active listening exercise degenerates into Selective listening, leading to complete breakdown in communication at times. At best, you’re perpetuating biases and notions based on incomplete understanding. Empathy turns this dynamic on its head.
“Empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work.” – Daniel Goleman
To really understand others’ point of view, you need to start out by accepting that you may have less information than them. In doing so, you do in fact put yourself in a potentially stronger position. By drawing out more information you are likely to understand the situation a lot better, make better decisions, leading to more successful outcomes. More importantly, the process itself yields to a better alignment as every party walks away as a “winner” having participated in the decision, however different the decision may look from their initial point of view. This is the power of empathy. As I said before, this allows you to get it right within the context of the organization, and leads to stickier decisions as a result.
“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Highly empathic people have an insatiable curiosity. This lays the foundation of inquiry into different perspectives. This type of inquiry invites individuals to share their ideas for change without posing a threat to them and their position in the organization. Thus, instead of asking, “Why is the software release running late?,” a leader should ask, “What are the factors impacting current release? How might we best derisk these factors?”. Questions that begin with “what” and “how” evoke thought; questions that begin with “why” evoke emotion and often are threatening to people. They put them on the defensive and make people shut down.
“Always stop to think whether your fun may be the cause of another’s unhappiness.” – Aesop
I recently took a course on understanding biases. It was an illuminating exercise as you learn so much about yourself along the way. Some of the examples resonated so well with me, I reached out to the instructor saying “OMG, I’m so imperfect!”. To which he responded, “We’re all beautifully imperfect!”. His response highlights the crux of the human condition - that we’re all imperfect in different ways, and that’s what makes it so beautiful. But to fully appreciate this beauty, you need to be acutely aware of the lenses through which you’re perceiving the world, be aware of your own biases, and act mindfully. While it can be unnerving and bring up feelings of shame to have our implicit biases revealed, the more clearly we see them, the less they control our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Need of the Hour
“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” –Albert Einstein
With both information and misinformation at your fingertips, and no easy way to tell the difference, the world is indeed becoming increasingly polarized. Computer algorithms are best at increasing bias by feeding you the same set of perspectives time and again. The only way to break free is by acknowledging we’re all work in progress, and actively seeking out perspectives that may not be readily available to us. I’d be remiss to ignore the biggest geopolitical conflict of our times, and can’t stop but wonder what outcome a truly empathic diplomacy might have brought instead. But then, international relations today are increasingly driven by realpolitik and hence decidedly amoral.