Magazine Article | July 31, 2014

The Importance Of Perspective-Taking In Leadership

Source: Life Science Leader

By Daniel H. Pink, author, most recently, of To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, (

Try this simple experiment. First, with the hand you use for writing, snap your fingers five times quickly. Now, with the forefinger of that hand, on your forehead draw a capital E. Believe it or not, how you drew that letter might reveal how you act as a leader.

This “E Test” is a technique that social scientists have used since the early 1980s to measure what they call “perspective-taking.” Researchers control for handedness, distract participants with finger-snapping, and then ask them to scrawl the vowel on their forehead.

There are two ways people can draw the E. They can draw it so someone else can read it—that is, with the open side of the E facing to their left. Or they can draw it so they can read it – with the open side of the E facing to their right. The test measures what we do out of habit and instinct. When we don’t know what’s being measured, what’s our go-to move? Do we take the other person’s perspective? Or do we stick with our own?

Whether you’re selling a product, pitching an idea, or trying to get employees to do something different or do something in a different way, perspective-taking has become an essential element in moving others. Over the last decade, social scientists like Adam Galinsky of Columbia University have deepened our understanding of perspective-taking. Their work yields three ways leaders can become more effective.

1. CHECK YOUR POWER. Galinsky and others have found that when people feel powerful, their perspective-taking abilities degrade. The more powerful we feel, the more we anchor in our own perspective rather than adjusting to another’s. And that can make others less likely to go along. But briefly reducing one’s feelings of power (“Maybe this employee I’m asking to do something needs our company much less than our company needs her.”) can increase the acuity of our perspective-taking, which in turn can make us more effective.

2. PERSPECTIVE-TAKING ISN’T TOUCHY-FEELY. Perspective-taking sounds a lot like empathy, but the two qualities are siblings, not identical twins. Empathy — the ability to understand another’s emotional state — is an essential human quality. But research has shown that, in commercial settings such as negotiations, understanding the other side’s thoughts and interests, not simply their emotions and feelings, can be more effective in forging a deal. So if you’re in a high-stakes leadership situation, definitely be emotionally intelligent. But use your head as much as your heart.

3. DON’T FORGET MIMICRY. Mimicking others’ posture, gesture, and expressions sounds like the sleazy tactics of a used car salesman. But ample research has shown that mimicry is a natural part of human behavior, an instinctive way we understand others. You can enhance your attunement skills, and thereby your leadership, simply by being conscious of how the other person is standing, moving, and talking and ever so slightly mirroring what they’re doing.