We all have a lens. It’s the filter through which we view the world. Sometimes we don’t even realize how much our current circumstances, or the seat that we occupy in any given situation, affects our perceptions.
I was running a leadership program for a group of senior managers. We put forth a case study. They were asked to imagine that they had just taken over a new team. The team wasn’t performing, but no one knew why. How would they diagnose and solve the problem?
They came up with a variety of answers. Some would assess each of the performers. Others would make people reapply for their jobs, to see if they even deserved to be in their spots. Some recommended training to improve performance.
But then I asked the pivotal question, “How would you want this handled if you were one of the performers?” That changed everything. Instead of firing people, they decided to clarify expectations, to see if the people even knew what was expected of them. Instead of making people reapply for their jobs, they decided to give clear feedback about what constituted good performance. Instead of assuming incompetence or lack of motivation, they decided to investigate whether the team had the appropriate resources to be effective.
When they imagined themselves as the employee, everything changed. If they were part of a team with a performance issue, they would want their manager to be honest, to tell them what was wrong and to give them the chance to make it right before they got fired or reassigned.
That simple question: “How would you want this to be handled if you were sitting in their spot?” changed their lens. One of the leaders even said out loud, “Oh, you want us to think about it from their perspective, why didn’t you say so at first? That changes everything.”
His incredulousness delighted and frustrated me at the same time. I was delighted that he did change his lens, yet frustrated that it had never occurred to him to look at it from the employees’ perspective until I suggested it.
The inability to imagine yourself sitting on the other side of an issue is a common human foible, one that I’m sure I exhibit myself.
During a recent sermon about poverty, the Rev. Anthony Makar (www.uuca.org) asked a question that continues to haunt me: “If you were born into poverty, if you were a child who had no choice in the matter, what would you want our policies to be?”
It’s easy to assume that you would find yourself in bad circumstances. You would never be part of a poor performing team, you would never make such bad decisions that you wound up being poor. Yet Makar’s question gets to the heart of the matter. He asks, “What if – for the purpose of setting up truly fair laws – we imagined that we completely forgot who we are? If I believed that at any moment I – as a relatively well-off person – might find myself in the place of the worst off, what kind of laws might that lead me to create?”
The answers are not simple. They don’t immediately lead to entitlements or handouts. The big question – How would I want this handled if I were on the other side? – doesn’t simplify problems, it illuminates their complexity, which is exactly what is required to solve them.