Dan Pink has spent the past two decades trying to understand how people work, how organizations function and in particular how we can use social science —psychology, economics, linguistics, etc.— to do things a little better.
In his 2016 Commencement Address at Georgetown, Pink shares one piece of research to help soon-to-be graduates learn one important lesson. To keep with the experiential learning nature of education at Georgetown, he recreates the experiment during his (often humorous) talk.
The instructions, which we can also look to replicate on our own, are:
- identify our dominant hand
- with it, snap our fingers five times very quickly
- using the forefinger of our dominant hand on our own forehead draw a capital “E”
He cautions everyone in the audience to follow the instructions, rather than overthink them. Since the 1980's social psychologists have been using this experiment to measure perspective-taking —the ability to get out of our own head, and see things from someone else's point of view.
Pink says, when we don't know what's being measured, this is a way to find out what's our instinct. Do we draw the letter so someone else could read it? Or do we draw it to make it easier for us to read it? Which is our default? Do we take our own perspective, or do we take someone else's?
There is no value judgement in the question. Because what really matters is context: power.
When people have power, do you think they are more inclined to take their own perspective, or someone else's perspective?
Usually not even close.
Research shows that when you remind people of their achievements, when you ask them to describe a time when they have authority over somebody, they become much more likely to draw the “E” in the self-oriented way.
As some of these researchers explain, “power leads individuals to anchor to heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to other's perspectives.”
Here's the key — in general, not all the time, there is an inverse relationship between feelings of power and perspective-taking. The more powerful one feels, the worse, typically, their perspective-taking abilities become. High-status people, in organizations and society are typically not good perspective-taking people. The low-status people, they're usually great at it; they're not in control.
To survive, it sure helps to know what the people who are in control are thinking.
An important lesson to remember as we make our way into the world making decisions of consequence. When we are in positions of power, we may not have the time nor the luxury to shift perspectives. And yet, we should be careful, says Pink:
Power can be a heady brew.
if you gradually lose the ability to see the world through someone else's eyes, all the experience and expertise you have accumulated will melt into a puddle of unrealized potential.
But if you work to balance power and perspective-taking (you'll have to work at that, it won't come automatically), you'll become a more effective leader because you will offer reasons beyond “I said so” for why anybody should follow you.
You'll become a more skilled negotiator because you'll understand all the positions around the table. You'll become a wiser decision-maker because your judgement will be informed by a wider set of views.
But perhaps more than anything, you could avoid what could be the biggest mistake that bosses, teachers, executives, government officials, and anyone else in a position of power can make.
It's a mistake at some point or another we have all made:
Thinking you are the smartest person in the room.
If you think you are the smartest person in the room, you just proved that you're not. Believing you are the smartest person in the room never ends well. It's how companies crumble, example Enron. It's how governments make tragic mistakes, example the U.S. in Vietnam. And it's how otherwise capable people undermine their achievements and limit their contributions. Example, you might be thinking of someone right now.
Believing you are the smartest person in the room is especially dangerous today. Why? Because our rooms have gotten a lot smarter.
Referencing the Broadway musical Hamilton, Pink says, “we're bringing more people in the room where it happens.” For example, the Georgetown 2016 graduation class, a much more diverse, and larger group of smart people who should remember to:
Use your power, but sharper the perspective-taking.
Argue like you're right, but listen like you're wrong.
And most of all… try to become the second smartest person in the room.
Watch the full speech below.