Unless you spent last week on a distant, wifi-free island, you’ve probably heard about “the dress.” Earlier this month, a photo of a dress was posted online, and identifying its color became a source of stress, argument and vitriol around the world (Sample comments: “I can’t handle this!” “If that’s not gold, my entire life has been a lie!”).
At first, I was convinced that the dress was obviously white and gold. Until I looked at the same picture a few hours later and was sure it was blue and black. (In reality, it is blue and black, and there’s a fascinating scientific explanation why we were all so confused).
As annoying as “dress gate” may have become, it represents a powerful leadership lesson: No matter how certain we are about a situation, there’s almost always another way to look at it. Especially as leaders, if we become too attached to our views, we can’t solve problems, maintain relationships or make good decisions.
In fact, the ability to take on different perspectives a defining leadership skill. Metaphorically, if we’re seeing a problem as “white and gold,” we must also develop the skills to see it as “blue and black.”
The next time you’re facing a problem, here are three questions to broaden your perspective:
1. What else could be causing this problem?
Last week, an executive approached me with a self-diagnosed “feedback problem.” Recently, he’d been in too many situations where he had to give his team constructive feedback. I asked why he thought it was a feedback problem. “Because,” he replied, “the feedback isn’t working!”
I paused. “Have you considered that this might not be a feedback problem at all?” His “aha” moment followed. What seemed like a feedback problem was really an expectation problem. He wasn’t giving his team clear direction, so they were guessing and often getting things wrong. The gold and white dress was actually blue and black!
As humans, our powers of perception are quite flawed. In their excellent book, Decisive, my colleagues Chip and Dan Heath argue that when we solve problems, we prematurely limit our choices. So, before you choose your solution, make sure you fully consider your options and are addressing the right issue.
2. How would a neutral party view this situation?
It’s an unpleasant fact that the average marriage becomes less satisfying over time. Determined to change this, a group of researchers tested a simple intervention with 60 married couples. Over a period of time, the couples were asked to consider “how a neutral third party who wants the best for all” would view a conflict in their marriage. While couples in a control group saw their marital quality decline, the couples who completed the intervention didn’t. The only difference was a change of perspective.
Successful leaders (and spouses) must push themselves to see the bigger picture beyond their own viewpoint. The next time you experience a problem—especially if you have strong feelings about it—challenge yourself to take a different perspective to understand the best solution.
3. Are the assumptions I’m making based on facts?
I was once coaching a superstar executive who was convinced her boss was trying to destroy her. Almost weekly, she would regale me with stories that, to her, were proof positive of that fact. But in every story, the motives behind the boss’s behavior were so ambiguous that I wasn’t convinced. One day, I asked her, “What objective evidence do you have that she is out to get you?” After a few seconds of stunned silence, she said, “None at all.”
This executive, without even realizing it, was making a mistake that humans make thousands of times per day. She saw her boss’ behavior, made assumptions about the reasons behind it, then reacted based on those assumptions. Business guru Chris Argyrus called this the “Ladder of Inference.” The best way to know if you’re “going up the ladder” is to ask yourself: “What evidence do I really have?” or “What is another reason this person might be acting this way?” You may find yourself unable to justify the assumptions you’ve been making.
4. When you're certain, remember the dress.
The dress that “broke the Internet” reminds us of a simple truth: there is no right way to perceive a color. For leaders, the same is true: there is no right way to perceive a problem; the only wrong way is to over rely on our own perspective.
Therefore, the best leaders (a) understand their biases, (b) know that overcoming them is critical and (c) have repeatable methods of challenging how they see their world.