Authored by Christiane Montuori on Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 2:09 PM | Add the first comment!
Tags: There are no tags for this entry.
I remember being fixed up in college by women who knew me from high school. Those blind dates never worked out, never even led to a second date. Eventually I began to see a pattern in their choices of “perfect” dates and, painfully, realized that it reflected a view of me was very different – and much less flattering - than my own.
It’s hard to grasp someone else’s view of reality when it differs drastically from your own. Doing so requires being open to the possibility that your view of reality is just one version and not discounting a different perspective that seems bizarre or wrong.
Yet that ability is essential to exercising leadership well.
Understanding other people deeply, knowing their feelings and their values, we typically call empathy. Empathy is necessary, but not enough on its own for exercising leadership.
If you’re trying to mobilize people to take on tough issues and face difficult choices, it is just as necessary to know how they think, what they think and how they understand the way the world works. With that understanding you can see what interventions might work, what levers could be pressed, what incentives offered, or prods employed. You can assess how they will respond to various different stimulations.
I would like to find or invent a word to describe this more cerebral complement to empathy. For now, let’s use “alterdoxy”, meaning knowing all there is to know about the world view of another person or group.
If you come up with a better word, please let me know.
Practicing alterdoxy brings you into the worlds of social science, including behavioral economics, game theory and systems thinking. It requires research, not of the academic variety, more like journalism.
By combining traditional economic theory with some psychology, behavioral economics has given us some clues as to how most human beings will react in most situations. For example, the work of Amos Tversky and others demonstrated convincingly that most people strongly prefer to avoid loss over acquiring gain. That’s a pretty useful insight as you are trying to fashion a leadership intervention.
On the game theory side, one of my recent activities has been reading Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s 2009 book, The Predictioneer’s Game, an easy to grasp introduction to the application of game theory to strategizing for affecting outcomes, or, in our language exercising leadership. De Mesquita (check out his blog) writes about going beyond empathy and intuition to knowing what outcomes people value, the order of their preferences, how strongly they hold those preferences, and how influential they are with other relevant individuals and factions.
From systems thinking, we at Cambridge Leadership Associates would add the idea that everything is connected to everything else. What that means for exercising leadership is that you need to know not only what the relevant parties think about the various outcomes, but also what they think about a whole lot of other things. For example, there are people whose support you need who have little interest in your issue, but care deeply about some other issue on which you, or someone else in your existing coalition, can be helpful to them in return for their support on what you care most about.
This kind of thinking can be offensive to those who think that every issue stands on its own merits. That idea, while alluring in the abstract, doesn’t reflect how real people and real life work. In my experience, most effective people intuitively sacrifice something they believe in on behalf of something they believe in a lot more. People who aren’t willing to do that must enjoy martyrdom, loneliness, noble failure and the self-righteousness that goes with never giving in.
The kind of information needed to practice alterdoxy is often readily obtainable: watch people’s behavior, interview them, talk to their friends and colleagues, go to their websites. It is research, an above the neck activity, whereas empathy is a below the neck connection based on intuition.
Put empathy and alterdoxy together and you get what we have been calling “political thinking”.