How to Engage Skeptics in Culture Interventions

Perspective taking can effectively engage skeptics who may be turned off by what they consider “soft” concepts like psychological safety.

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Many executive team members struggle to engage in the problem-solving and strategic decision-making needed in a complex environment. One reason for this is a lack of the psychological safety that makes it possible to offer new information or dissenting views, which directly affects decision quality. An obvious solution is to work on building psychological safety in the team; however, we have found that some executives are skeptical about what they see as “soft” concepts or interventions. Even when most of a group is on board, reluctant individuals — especially those in positions of power — can substantially inhibit psychological safety and, in turn, performance. Fortunately, introducing perspective taking as a skill offers an alternative way to engage skeptics and has been shown to drive performance in diverse teams.

Perspective describes how an individual perceives their reality or a specific issue. Our perspective on any matter develops through the accumulated experiences of life — such as education, upbringing, and social context — and past experiences dealing with similar topics. In the workplace, our unique role, affiliation, and hierarchical position shape our perception of a topic, opportunity, or challenge. Teams of people with different backgrounds, diverse experiences, and multiple competencies will have a wider variety of perspectives than more homogeneous groups.

Long known as a crucial skill for innovation and negotiations, perspective taking occurs when an individual actively attempts to step outside their own perspective to envision another person’s viewpoint, motivation, and emotions. The power of perspective taking is that its approach of curious inquiry asks people to do the mental work of imagining another’s viewpoint. When we believe someone we disagree with is making a genuine effort to understand how we see an issue, we are more willing to share honest, detailed information. In this way, introducing perspective taking is a good way to build psychological safety while strengthening the skills required for a group to solve problems together.

Perspective Taking as a Path to High-Quality Dialogue

Perspective taking serves as an effective way to engage and influence leaders and executives who may otherwise be turned off by what they consider “soft” concepts. Take, for example, a study on an intervention at a Nordic bank that was focused on enabling transformation by infusing psychological safety and empathic listening into the culture. During the intervention, led by Per, he learned that concepts perceived as soft were stopping a few highly influential leaders from engaging in the change activities.

In response, Per switched over to the more action-oriented language of perspective taking while researching the exercises used in the intervention alongside researchers at the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative. The resulting report describes how perspective taking helps to engage more parts of the brain — more precisely, the brain networks connected to creativity and idea generation — and explains the breakthrough solutions many participants developed while engaged in facilitated perspective-taking exercises. Introducing perspective taking as a skill accelerated most participants’ willingness to move beyond their own perspectives to try to understand those of others, which in turn enabled progress on several crucial strategic challenges.

Perspective taking helps to engage more parts of the brain — more precisely, the brain networks connected to creativity and idea generation.

Additionally, the intervention rendered long-term effects on culture as leaders developed a shared assumption that perspective taking is helpful when dealing with complex challenges. For example, two senior leaders from different parts of the organization who had separately participated in Per’s guided perspective-taking training spontaneously decided to spend an hour exploring an important business challenge from each other’s perspective. They quickly realized that one person’s top priority did not make the top 10 on the other’s priority list, and vice versa. This discovery led them to conclude that there was no actual conflict; rather, their different roles and functions led them to prioritize different concerns. After understanding each other’s goals, they came up with ways to balance their priorities to execute on the organization’s overall strategy. This not only resolved the original disagreement but had a significant positive effect on ongoing collaboration between the two leaders and also between their departments.

A Reinforcing Loop

The resulting dialogue between the two senior leaders manifested the benefits of both perspective taking and psychological safety. Perspective taking, then, offers skeptics — along with everyone else — a way to engage, enabling a climate where candid, accurate, useful information can be shared in a goal-oriented way, ultimately fostering effective problem-solving.

At this point, it’s natural to wonder about the chicken and the egg: High-quality perspective taking may require a certain level of psychological safety if both parties are to share how they think and feel about an issue. At the same time, perceiving someone to be genuinely curious about your perspective, which the process of perspective taking engenders, makes it easier to share information openly and honestly, without fear — in other words, with psychological safety.

High-quality perspective taking may require a certain level of psychological safety if both parties are to share how they think and feel about an issue.

We propose that perspective taking and psychological safety together give rise to a mutually reinforcing dynamic. Either starting place can help build a group capacity for generative dialogue and productive decision-making.

Perspective Taking in Practice

When bringing people together to work on vital strategic challenges, Per often starts with a simple paraphrasing exercise to help generate a reinforcing loop that unfolds as follows:

  • Give people a few minutes to reflect and formulate their own perspective on the challenge at hand and what they think needs to be kept in mind to make progress. Encourage everyone to be as objective as possible, focusing on evidence and examples and refraining from judgments and conclusions. Staying objective makes it easier for people to see an issue from another’s perspective.
  • Invite each person, one by one, to share their perspective and what they see as important to consider. At this point, to ensure that the speaker’s perspective is understood, allow only clarifying questions — resist the temptation to slip into conversation. The focus at this stage is to fully understand everyone’s perspective accurately; discussion comes later.
  • Encourage people to take notes about each speaker’s perspective, which can be reviewed once everyone’s perspectives are shared. This will help them consider multiple nuances and facets of the topic while building a more complete picture.
  • After the first speaker has shared their perspective, have them select one person (preferably one who may have a very different viewpoint) to paraphrase what they have heard, presenting the first speaker’s perspective but formulated in their own words.
  • Ask the first speaker to approve the paraphrase before the group moves on to a second speaker. If the first speaker feels that the paraphraser has inaccurately described their perspective, ask them to explain the difference. The paraphraser gets another try, which goes on until the speaker OK’s the paraphrase. Most of the time, it does not take more than one attempt to convey understanding, and even when it does take multiple tries, clarity is not hard to achieve.
  • Move on to the second speaker once the paraphrase has been approved by the first speaker. Repeat the same procedure until everyone has shared their perspective and approved a paraphrase of it.

Through the process of this exercise focusing on specific challenges or decisions, a management team can establish a richer, shared understanding of the issue, which immediately affects the quality of decisions. Simultaneously, they can create a more open and psychologically safe atmosphere, fostering continued capacity for productive conversations and progress on complex, thorny challenges.

The question of where to begin in developing a climate of candor and challenge for effective executive decision-making will never have a one-size-fits-all answer. Overlooking these critical team competencies is no longer an option in an uncertain world, but whether you choose to work on psychological safety or introduce perspective taking as a critical team skill is up to you.


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