Perspective-taking as a leadership practice

Leadership coaches often help their clients expand their “perspective taking” ability, even if they don’t use this term. “Perspective taking” is linked to a body of research – now stretching back many decades – called “stage development psychology” (think Jean Piaget, Jane Loevinger, William Perry, Bob Kegan). This field is getting increasing attention from coaches and leadership development professionals, sometimes under the rubric of “vertical development.” The most influential pioneer in applying stage development to leadership has been Bill Torbert, formerly at Boston College.   Leadership Agility, the book I co-authored, synthesizes and builds upon the findings of all these trailblazers, adding additional insights from 5 years of fresh new studies of leaders I did while writing the book.

Stages of development in perspective-taking capacity

“Perspective taking” is viewing a situation from another person’s (or group’s) point of view. Research has established that perspective-taking develops through a sequence of predictable stages. For example, 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 we all felt in early adolescence.

Contrary to what was once believed, additional stages of growth are open to us in adulthood. If our perspective-taking capacity continues to develop, 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. Yet many people plateau at an early adulthood stage, not because of genetic programming, but because of a combination of interest and circumstance. Most institutions, including the great majority of business corporations, are not geared to supporting adults through the full spectrum development.

Expert and Achiever stage perspective-taking

Perspective-taking is central to effective leadership, though not all leaders recognize this. According to our research, roughly 45% of managers are currently at the Expert stage of development, a stage that most often emerges around the end of high school or the early years of college. At this stage a manager’s likely mindset is that, if you lead by using your authority and expertise, others should follow. But in today’s business environment, this often doesn’t work.

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

Many of the managers you coach probably hang out primarily at the Expert level. Their growing edge is to develop into the Achiever orientation just described. We help these leaders develop – and apply – a more Achiever-like perspective-taking capacity each time we 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 that they would 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 one’s usual embeddedness in one’s own perspective. By asking these questions and giving “homework” that encourages your clients to continue this kind of inquiry between sessions, you help them cultivate perspective-taking as a leadership practice – something that will stand them in good stead, at work and beyond, for years to come.

Catalyst stage perspective-taking

Now leaders face a new challenge. The pace of change and the degree of complexity and interdependence in today’s work environment is calling leaders to develop their perspective-taking further. At the Achiever stage 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 that we are in the other person’s circumstances, but also what it would be like to be the other person.

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

Catalyst-stage 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’s also easier for you to see and understand the framework of values and assumptions underlying your own perspective and that of others, making it easier to engage in creative, collaborative problem-solving.

Perspective-taking as part of stakeholder agility

In our work with leaders, we de-jargonize the term “perspective-taking” and make it practical by calling it “stakeholder understanding.”   This is a key part of what we call “stakeholder agility,” the kind of agility that enhances a leader’s work with other people. The other part of stakeholder agility is the ability to resolve differences and create alignment – something I’ll get into in another blog post. (For an overview of the other three types of agility critical for effective leadership, check out this overview of the Leadership Agility model).

Beyond stage to “level of leadership agility”

One thing we’ve found repeatedly through years of experience, applying this ”vertical development” approach to coaching and leadership development: A leader may be at a particular stage in terms of their ability to reflect while away from an “action environment” (sitting with a coach, or filling out a “sentence completion form” to assess their stage of “\ego development). However, such a leader may or may not be putting that capacity into action in any consistent manner.  This may, in fact, be their current growing edge.

When a leader does put their stage consistently into action (say, the Catalyst stage), we say that person operates at the Catalyst “level of leadership agility.” Approximately 10% of managers are at the Catalyst stage, or beyond, but only about 6% act consistently at the Catalyst level of agility.

This is why we developed the Leadership Agility 360. We wanted something that would not only assess a leader’s cognitive and emotional capacities (stage), but also the extent to which they utilize these capacities in action. Only a 360 can assess behavior, so we designed a different kind of 360, one that can assess agility levels, described as stage-based behavioral responses to key leadership challenges – leading organizational change, improving team performance, and pivotal conversations. In fact, this is the only 360 feedback instrument that can assess where a leader is along the spectrum of levels of leadership agility.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of The HR Gazette or its team members.

Author: Bill Joiner

Bill Joiner is co-author of the award-winning book, Leadership Agility. He is CEO, resident thought-leader, and a Principal Consultant at ChangeWise, a firm with international reach that specializes in leadership consulting, coaching and training; team development; and organizational change consulting. Follow Bill Joiner on Twitter – @leaderagility

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