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By Steve Kelman

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Putting yourself in others’ shoes can help you too!

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In my last blog, I discussed an interesting book called Friend & Foe that explores balancing competition and cooperation in organizational interactions. The book, which was written by well-known organizational behavior scholars Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, also has another section I especially liked and think is relevant for readers of this blog. Galinsky and Schweitzer discuss of how people are helped by an ability to put themselves into the shoes of others -- something that in psychological jargon is called “perspective-taking.”

Let me start off with an observation the authors don’t make but maybe should: Being good at putting yourself in the shoes of others is admirable in and of itself. If we are good at that, we will see more opportunities to improve the lives of our friends, loved ones and people whom we interact with in work or other contexts by adapting or tweaking our behavior.

The authors’ point -- they are business school professors, after all -- is that perspective-taking helps you get better outcomes for yourself in dealings with others.

There is lab research looking at these benefits in the context of negotiating. If you ask negotiators to spend some time before a negotiation thinking about the person with whom they will negotiate and “try to understand what they are thinking, what their interests and purposes are,” the result is more likely to be an innovative solution that makes both parties better off than they would have been without perspective-taking.

A dramatic example of the benefits of perspective-taking for the individual able to do it comes from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign for president. (I had heard this story before, but had not put the spin on it the authors do.) The campaign wanted to use a flattering photo of Roosevelt that it planned to print and distribute as a pamphlet to 3 million people. Shortly before campaign staffers were going to distribute them, they noticed that the company had copyrighted the photo and that it would likely cost a dollar per pamphlet to get license its use. They totally panicked. The obvious solutions were to tear up the pamphlet or to pay a huge sum of money.

But then someone thought through how this situation looked from the company’s perspective.

Two crucial facts were that the company wouldn’t know the campaign had already printed up the photos, and that the company might well regard distributing the photos with their name as the source as great publicity for them.

So they cabled the company a message: “We are planning to distribute millions of pamphlets with Roosevelt’s picture on the cover. It will be great publicity for the studio whose photograph we use. How much will you pay us to use yours?”

The company responded, “We have never done this before. But under the circumstances, we’d be pleased to offer you $250.”

Another interesting part of the material on perspective-taking is a discussion of the benefits a person can get from mimicking the behavior of others, such as their gestures or movements. When the authors introduced this topic, I will confess it sounded bizarre to me, but it turns out there is research on this.

In one study, when a person doing a joint task with somebody else was instructed by an experimenter subtly to mirror their partner’s mannerisms -- for example, if the person crossed their legs, the partner did so as well -- the person doing the task liked the partner more and felt the interaction was going more smoothly. In another study, if the interviewer in a work-related interaction mimicked elements of the behavior of the interviewee, the interviewee became less anxious and performed better; when one negotiator is instructed physically to mimic the other, the negotiator who was mimicked got more profitable deals for the pair.

The bottom line: The better you are at putting yourself in another person’s shoes, the greater your ability to influence their behavior. This belongs to the group of performance-enhancing techniques, others of which I have blogged about in the past, that can be implemented without statutory changes, extra appropriations, or union negotiations. These management tools are available to any federal manager -- take advantage of them!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 10, 2017 at 10:42 AM

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