One activity from my MBA program, like many programs, was to guess the age of the woman in the picture below - did we see an old woman or a young lady? The class argued both ways, some of us seeing an ear where others saw an eye, or a chin where others saw a nose. While the picture is an optical illusion with both women represented, the idea was to show us that a group of people can look at the same picture, see two different things, and both be right. The same is true in life.
As I step back and reflect, it’s amazing to me how much my perspective has changed over the course of my life. While this is expected and logical from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, I’ve also experienced a marked change in how I view certain situations as an adult. The more I experience as an adult, the greater understanding I have toward other people in similar situations and feel like I can empathize with them as well as often offer practical advice .
Much of these experiences center on the professional: losing a job, balancing grad school and full-time work, relocating to new cities for work, transitioning from an individual contributor to a leader, and returning to work from maternity leave. One thing that these experiences showed me was that there are multiple options or answers to consider in most situations; things are not as black and white as I sometimes thought. I found myself trying to balance the differing opinions of people around me and use my experience and perspective to solve problems that used to seem straightforward and, with the onslaught of many valid opinions, were actually quite complex. As I became more interested in the idea of how we develop and expand our perspective, I read this quote in an article by Kevin Eikenberry “The most self-aware leaders recognize that perspective is one of the most valuable things they bring to their role – and the best leaders, whether they would describe it this way or not, all use the power of perspective to be more effective and successful.”
Every year, I step back and set personal and professional goals for myself. This year, I was challenged by a colleague to also identify goals that test my character or behaviors, and I decided one of my goals was to broaden my perspective, specifically to “gain new perspectives by finding opportunities to get out of my comfort zone and see the world through the eyes of people who are different than me.“ With everything I’d read and saw, this was the most important character trait I could work on this year.
The intent of my goal was to find ways to cultivate greater awareness and empathy for people in all walks of life by getting outside my comfort zone and seeing the world through their eyes. While reading books, listening to people more, and asking questions were ways I had already been trying to gain different perspectives, these methods seemed insufficient and felt too “safe” for what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to do something that pushed me outside my comfort zone a bit, knowing that I was not ready for an extreme immersion yet.
The first step (ideally of many) I’ve taken to getting outside my comfort zone has been volunteering in a hands-on role with a local charitable organization. In the past, I’ve enjoyed volunteering but often donated items or money, or did something that did not immerse me with the people who benefited from the work of the organization. Now, I interact with each person who comes in to the food pantry during my shift, and I am able to connect the work I am doing to a real person which has deepened the experience. For me, the geographic location and the unfamiliarity of the overall environment have pushed me outside my comfort zone. At first, I was a bit apprehensive about volunteering; worried I would say the wrong thing to someone or somehow offend them, but over the past six months I’ve realized that people are the same in many fundamental ways: they want to be treated with respect and dignity, they want to connect with another person in a meaningful way, and they are appreciative of the generosity of others.
One thing I have learned through talking to others about this topic is that there is a continuum of experiences available when you think about broadening your perspective and getting outside your comfort zone. It starts with things like reading different articles and books or listening to people with different opinions, then moves to sitting down with people who have different perspectives and asking them questions (similar to Stephen Covey’s concept of seeking to understand rather than be understood) and can manifest itself in actual experiences that immerse you more with people who have different perspectives, such as volunteering or taking a particular job or career path. As I’ve gotten more comfortable, it opens the door to trying other things that will give greater awareness for the perspective of others.
The second thing I have learned is that gaining additional experiences in all walks of life are especially important for aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs. While having a variety of professional experiences is critical to pull from in these roles, it is equally important that people in these roles understand the many different types of people who support their products or services, both employees and consumers. In my experience, the leaders who are regarded as the most connected and authentic are those who can build a relationship with anyone, from what are traditionally called “front line” or “back of the house” employees to vendors to customers. These relationships are often successful because the person meets each person where they are, makes them comfortable, and has an awareness of their perspective that they consider when when making organizational decisions and communicating these decisions. While this awareness may or may not change a decision, it shows respect through a willingness to consider alternative viewpoints and cultivates overall acceptance of the decision. You could have the greatest product idea, the most funding, or a litany of experiences and education that prepare you for a leadership role, but without channeling the power of perspective you put at risk your relationships with people, your credibility, and your success.