Walk a Mile in Their Shoes: Perspective Taking for Motivating Creativity

Tasks that result from the intrinsic motivation of employees are not always necessarily aligned with organizational objectives. The best way to facilitate creativity turns out to be combining intrinsic motivation with perspective-taking initiatives, which give employees the chance to connect with their end user. HRIQ speaks with Adam M. Grant, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Management at The Wharton School and James W. Berry, Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Behavior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The researchers will discuss their findings and how to combine intrinsic motivation with prosocial motivation, a concept discussed in their previous HRIQ interview.

Can you define "perspective taking" and discuss how you could encourage an employee to take the perspective of another or incorporate that so their initiatives are aligned with the organization’s goals?

Adam: Perspective taking is walking in other people’s shoes, psychologically speaking. When we talk about perspective taking, we’re talking about trying to see the world the way somebody else sees it. We find that there are a number of ways that this can be encouraged.

One of the most straightforward ways that I’ve been studying for a number of years is giving employees greater exposure and access to perspectives that they don’t normally encounter. As an example, you might be an automotive engineer who is designing cars for passengers and drivers that you rarely interact with; you might be a toy designer who has relatively little contact with the children who play with the toys you make. There’s a disconnect between you as an employee and your end-user. My research shows that if you actually have some exposure to that end user (whether through face-to-face interaction, a conversation, an interview, focus group, or even an e-mail exchange or letter), you’re much more likely to experience concern for that person and really take his or her perspective seriously. You also gain a deeper understanding of what that person needs. In my research, that turns out to be the most powerful , straightforward way to foster perspective taking.

Could this translate into internal employee relations as well to help employees relate to each other better as well?

Jim: McDonald’s requires their managers to spend three months working as an employee in someone else’s store. Even if you were a manager at a competitor, if you wanted to move over to McDonald’s you would have to go through a training portion in order to understand what your employees are going through each day. I believe this also applies to owners and people buying franchises.

Adam: There are plenty of companies working on developing internal perspective taking. I’ve worked with a number of organizations that do that through job rotation: actually requiring employees to do each other’s jobs for a number of days, weeks, or months. This really forces you to understand why a particular task may be challenging or a product might not be coming out the way you want it to. Citigroup requires this kind of job rotation in one of their management training programs, which builds perspective taking right into development.

What are some examples of companies who have incorporated perspective taking into their organizational strategy and experienced a benefit?
Adam: One of my favorite examples comes from the medical technology company, Medtronic. They have a an annual holiday party for all of the 30,000 plus employees in the company. At the holiday party, they reinforce that their mission is about improving patients’ health and trying to restore people who are experiencing illness and disability to their full potential. At the party, they bring the mission to life by inviting six patients, whose lives have been touched or changed by Medtronic’s technology, to come and tell their stories . Bill George, the former CEO, told me that every employee has a "defining moment" when they come face to face with a patient whose life has been changed in a dramatic way by their products or services. They come back to work with a much richer understanding of how these patients are currently benefitting from the company’s work, but also ways in which patients could benefit even more significantly, which often sparks new ideas.

As another example, Facebook’s consumer marketing team runs an initiative to bring feedback to help employees understand what Facebook users appreciate and what could be improved. Recently, they invited a group of users to visit, but instead of just connecting with the consumer marketing team, the users actually met the software engineers as well. The software engineers got to hear these incredible stories of how the unique technology and social network on Facebook enabled them to find a long lost relative, or a friend they had lost touch with for 10 or 20 years. This is another great example of bringing end users front and center, for the people who are designing the product to see how they’re benefitting and identify some new ways in which they could benefit even more.

Cabela’s Outdoor Gear company goes a step further: they turn employees into customers with their policy that allows retail employees to borrow unlimited fishing and camping equipment, use it themselves and even write a review. They get a much deeper understanding of the customer’s perspective. There’s an initiative like that at the Four Seasons Hotel as well. As you go through employee orientation, as a housekeeper or clerk, you will have a familiarization stay where you get to spend a night as a guest in the hotel to see what the service is like and get a real firsthand taste of the customer’s perspective.

What is the most tangible lesson that an HR professional could take from your research?

Jim: To broaden the hiring manager’s perspective and not just to look at applicants who are intrinsically motivated, but go beyond that and try to find people who are motivated for a larger interest. Identify people who not only feel comfortable taking the perspective of others, but hopefully have developed the skill of putting themselves in the position of the customer or someone else working within the organization.

If there’s one big takeaway from this work, it’s that it’s not just all about "me, me, me!" I can actually be more creative if I’m thinking about me and you.

Adam: When we think about motivating creativity, we think about the work itself, and making it interesting: giving people tasks that are challenging or involve a lot of variety, giving employees a lot of autonomy to complete their tasks in the way that they see fit. Whether you’re talking about the challenge, the freedom, the variety, or the interest level, we tend to think those characteristics of the work itself are what really drive people to be more creative. What our research brings to the table is that relationships matter: it’s not just the work, it’s also the people who benefit from the work that can influence how creative you are. Even drawing an employee’s attention to who those people are and how they benefit can be enough to encourage a focus on developing trulyl useful ideas, not just novel ideas that have little practical value.