Why Perspective-Taking is a Must-Have Skill for Managers
According to Business Insider, empathy ranks second on the list of top 10 skills that are worthwhile but hard to acquire in order to be successful at work. We are all naturally wired for empathetic thinking, but it takes conscious effort to further develop this innate ability; it requires directing our attention towards other people’s feelings and experiences. The good news is that as empathetic habits become hard wired in the brain, the amount of required conscious effort diminishes.
In 2010, doctors at a Boston hospital took part in empathy training in which they were advised to: pay greater attention to the expressions on their patients faces, listen closely to voice modulations, and incorporate other small changes into their interactions with patients, such as facing the patient rather than the computer screen during the consultation. After the three hour training session, the doctors who took part reported higher empathy levels. One of the doctors declared that in the beginning it was difficult to empathise with the patient and at the same time to make her diagnosis, but eventually it “became fun” and the interaction with the patient reminded her of her initial drive towards medicine.
David Deming of Harvard University considers empathy, among other social skills, to be increasingly important for a variety of jobs, not only health care workers, therapists and others at the interface with customers also benefit greatly. Empathy is also important for software engineers and managers especially, in workplaces where collaboration is required.
If managers desire to lead a team that contributes positively to the higher profitability of the company it is vital to understand what helps employees succeed and what circumstances may prevent them from succeeding.
An empathetic manager better divides tasks between team members to fulfill the mission that the company stands for. When they further develop the ability to understand the values and opinions of the staff, managers can then engage in a productive dialogue about what employees actually want to do to reach their goals.
So just how many managers are taking the empathetic approach? Despite the recognized benefits of empathetic leadership, a 2016 study shows that individuals in high power are not inclined to take others’ perspectives. Instead, they have a tendency to focus more on the resources they can control rather than on seeing the world from the perspective of others around them.
The need for empathy is reflected also by a Gallup report of employee engagement in workplaces in more than 140 different countries. It reveals that only 13% of employees are motivated to develop professionally, creatively, and take initiative to contribute at work.
Four Focus Areas When Perspective-Taking
Here is a summary of findings compiled from neuroscience and positive psychology research that highlight particular key aspects on which managers should focus when engaging in the employee perspective.
1.Use of emotional labelling
Business people can be reluctant to speak about their emotional experiences, especially the negative ones, because they incorrectly predict that it would only make the emotions worse. Quite the opposite, research shows that labelling emotions reduces arousal in the brain’s limbic system and inclines working memory towards cognitive thinking. In this way, creative answers to questions such as: “How can I motivate this person to work towards his/her goal?” are found.
2.Belonging in the workplace
Brain scans of people who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work show activation of the same areas associated with physical pain. Badly managed employees can suffer and show lower work performance, ultimately adding to low business results in the long-run.
A sense of belonging in the workplace is developed by positively relating to and identifying with others in it. Daily interactions between managers and employees provide opportunities to reinforce a positive message about what the team stands for and in what ways the employee sense of self is reflected in it.
Additionally, it is important to recognize that a sense of belonging to the group may be slightly different for team members from distinct home cultures. Individualistic cultures, like those of Western Europe or USA, place a high value on having a sense of control. When employees from such cultures feel that they have choices they experience more joy, excitement, and happiness.
As a manager of a culturally diverse team, it is best to make an individual employee assessment of the importance of the sense of control over one’s work. For the employees from individualistic cultures, even if you are in a power position, it is best to allow them to organize their own work, within the boundaries of what is allowed in the organizational culture. Research has shown that in stressful situations, when people have choices, they don’t feel much stress. However, with employees from collectivist societies, it’s good to take the perspective of how they think. For example, in Asian countries, people have a more societal orientation in their thinking and may perform better when their boss gives them specific tasks on what is expected and how they could go about achieving it.
3.Positive mood and creativity at work
A study published in Psychological Science shows that employees who experience a positive mood at work show increased cognitive flexibility compared with the employees who experience negative or neutral moods.
In the daily interactions between managers and employees the way managers choose to communicate can directly improve the wellbeing of their employees. Managers who express empathy have employees who report less somatic symptoms and stronger daily progress towards goals.
The feeling of a job well done boosts good mood. People do a better job when they have the chance to exercise their strengths in accordance with the tasks assigned. An empathetic manager needs to know three things about the employees they interact daily with: their strengths, the triggers that activate their strengths – like, what kind of acknowledgement and praise to give -, and their learning style.
Employees tend to be in a better mood when they feel they can predict outcomes. A small amount of uncertainty can feel pleasant, but too much uncertainty can be stressful. The manager who is skilful at perspective taking is sensitive to employees’ level of coping with uncertainty. For example, when requesting a meeting, time should be taken to explain what the meeting is about, what the employee needs to prepare, and what they can expect to get from the meeting.
4. Fairness and decision making
The human brain loves fairness. Managerial decisions are constantly and automatically being monitored for fairness by group members. Although members of the group perceive fairness of decisions differently, managers could contribute to an overall sense of fairness in two ways. First, by taking time to explain to employees why a decision was made. Second, by actively listening to the opinions and possible concerns of those who are affected by the decision.
In your managerial experience, which one of these four aspects do you naturally focus on when interacting with others?