“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”
Putting yourself in another’s shoes in not just sound ethical practice – it’s sound business practice too (and these two things should never be mutually exclusive).
Beyond the ethical benefits, here are some practical ones:
- better working relationships, with your employees, your colleagues, and your customers
- increased insight and ability to learn from other people
- leveraging diversity in all its forms to strengthen your organization
It’s a noble ideal, but how do we apply it in a business context? By asking yourself two simple questions, you can start to exercise your empathy muscle and get into another’s shoes. Let’s look at a hypothetical example, where you would like an employee to take on more responsibility within your team, and they are resistant. You are starting to conclude that they are being difficult, even defiant – are you correct? How might putting ourselves in their shoes help us get to the result we’re hoping for?
What does success look like for this person?
Often our own idea of success is so ingrained in us that it’s hard to imagine it does, in fact, look different for different people. Your idea of success might be rising to the top of the corporate ladder, in which case an offer of more responsibility looks like a step forward; your employee might view success as doing a good job until 5 p.m. and then getting home to have dinner with her family, in which case extra responsibility looks like a roadblock to success. Use your self-awareness to uncover your assumptions about success, and then consider whether the person you are dealing with might have a different point of view. This enables you to frame the situation into terms that are meaningful to them – perhaps the added responsibility means they can download some administrative work to a more junior team member, for example – and you’re more likely to gain buy-in.
What pressures do they have that you’re not seeing?
Important though it may be, work is only a part of a person’s life and like the proverbial iceberg, there may be a lot going on below what you can see at the surface. Is this person comfortable with their current level of responsibility? Do they have mental or physical health issues, financial or family challenges, that you might not be aware of? Discovering these pressures may reveal to you that your request is ill-timed or they are unable to add items to their plate – or there may be an opportunity to help them (for example, through employee assistance program services, flexible work or work-from-home arrangements, etc.) deal with those pressures in a way that enables them to work more effectively.
My final tip – when in doubt, ask. And if you want to get to the truth, do so in a non-judgmental and open-minded way. “Celia, there’s an opportunity to take on a bigger role in our team that I believe you are qualified for, but I sense that you are uncomfortable about it – can you share why that might be?” Then, listen. (If you’ve done the work of building trust with your team, then you have an advantage at this stage.) Keep an open mind, and value the insight that might come from hearing their point of view. Be open to hearing some difficult truths – perhaps there is something going on within your team that you are not currently aware of. Remember that there might be one fact, but many perceptions of the fact – resist the urge to correct and seek to understand. What might seem like an excellent opportunity to you might look completely different from another perspective.
Putting yourself in another person’s shoes in an infinitely practical and useful skill for business and life. Work towards mastering it.