Perspective Taking in the Workplace

This article, by Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP, and Pamela Crooke, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, authors of Social Thinking at Work: Why Should I Care? was written for HR staff and workplace managers, psychologists and therapists.

Michelle Garcia Winner We are social creatures, and what drives our social behavior is a complex, synergistic, and dynamic process called “social thinking.”

In the early 1990s, speech language pathologist Michelle Garcia Winner coined the term “social thinking” and developed a treatment model called Social Thinking and related teaching strategies. This cognitive behavior based model breaks down the complex arena of social thinking into individual components and offers a direct teaching format for these often nebulous concepts.

Social thinking recognizes that we negotiate virtually everything we do through an almost imperceptible thought process that considers other points of view, or perspectives, in addition to our own. This practice is at the heart of social thinking, and it is one of the finest balancing acts we perform on a daily basis. And, like most any process related to social thinking, it can be impaired, on a continuum from mild to severe, within individuals who are born with challenges in social thinking and social learning.

Perspective taking (PT) is like many social concepts—it’s easy to get a sense of its general meaning but hard to define precisely. Simply put, it is the ability to look at things from a point of view other than our own. But of course a concept in theory is not the same as a concept in practice. The reality is that in communication we have to deal with many things happening at once. We must think about and respond to an amazing amount of information, all in a very short period of time. We process and respond not only to our own thoughts and feelings, but also to what we believe other people are thinking and feeling. When we express our opinions, we gauge responses—of others and our own – to minimize social conflict and maximize social harmony, so others do not feel threatened or disrespected.

Our ability to handle this kind of social complexity is even more incredible in light of the fact that a typically-developing brain can process and respond to an array of social information in a tiny amount of time—from milliseconds to two seconds. In other words, it is not enough to just figure out someone else’s perspec­tive; you also have to do it very quickly. Watch people interact, and you will observe rapid-fire responses that are coded both verbally and nonverbally.

Like most any process related to social thinking, perspective taking is multidimensional, fluid, and changing. It happens not only during intentional or planned interactions, but also spontaneously in the spaces people share. An overview of what we are expected to do when taking perspective follows, as outlined in the Social Thinking Model developed by Winner.

The Seven Core Tenets of Perspective Taking

1) THOUGHTS We think about people whether or not we plan to interact with them. When we are in the presence of oth­ers, we cannot help but think about what they might be thinking. We notice what they’re looking at, what they’re doing, where they’re going. This begins the process of de­ciding whether we want to interact or, on a more basic level, whether we feel safe or comfortable in their presence.

If we do plan to talk to someone, then we think more concretely about whether this is a good time, whether the person is distracted or perhaps already talking to someone else, and similar concerns. This awareness can help us fig­ure out if it’s okay to speak and add our own thoughts.

2) EMOTIONS Although our emotions are philosophically dif­ferent from our thoughts, the two are deeply entwined. We can talk about them differently, but they generally operate best together, much like an iPod is most useful with ear buds. Some of us may like to believe that our emotional selves are present only in personal relationships and that our intel­lectual selves take over during the workday, but that is not the case. Emotions are as much a part of the workday as the concrete or practical aspects of our jobs. In fact, the idea of a team player is more about how people relate to each other than about the knowledge they bring to the job.

3) PHYSICAL MOTIVES AND INTENTIONS Most of us are pretty good at reading physical intentions, meaning we can deter­mine what people are planning to do next based on how we perceive their movements and the direction of their gaze. We think we know why someone is heading into the bath­room or going into the office kitchen, without specifically being told his needs or desires. Reading people’s physical intentions helps us determine their motives. Uncon­sciously and consciously, we track the behavior of those around us to try and figure out what they are doing, what they are thinking, and what they are planning.

Our brains assist us in these endeavors by providing a so­cial radar system that helps determine people’s motives and intentions, even when we are not taking specific or direct notice of those around us. This is especially true in the rela­tively small physical spaces many of us share at work. You do notice your coworkers’ comings and goings, but their movements may not attract your attention until they walk right up to you.

4) LANGUAGE-BASED MEANING AND INTENTIONS The way peo­ple speak is often indirect, requiring us to intuit the actual meaning of their words. What a person says is not necessar­ily what he means. We try to figure it out, in the same way we try to determine someone’s thoughts and plans by ob­serving the direction of their gaze and their physical move­ments. In the workplace, when groups work cooperatively, each team member has to take into account every other person’s needs to figure out how to complement or add to each oth­er’s efforts, rather than detract from them. What we decide to say or not say requires us to interpret what the other person is saying and doing.

Sometimes what is not said can be more powerful than what is said, and this comes into play when interpreting meaning and intentions through language. Ever notice what happens when a journalist interviews a politician and tries to ask a difficult question to get the person to reveal something the public has not heard? Listen carefully to the response of the politician; he begins by acting as if he is an­swering the question, but then he transitions to a different topic to circumvent the suggested one. It is done with such art that many times listeners don’t realize the politician just sidestepped giving an answer altogether.

5) BELIEF SYSTEMS Stomping on or disregarding a belief sys­tem is one of the quickest ways to irritate or upset a coworker or boss. There are many kinds of belief systems—cultural, gender-based, work-related, religious, financial, educational and political, to name several. We are expected to remain highly attuned to the fact that our coworkers may not share our personal philosophies or views of the world.

As adults we respect that people have different belief sys­tems and we avoid treading in those areas when relating to each other. Again, this means knowing what not to say just as much as knowing what to say. At times communication can be complicated. There are few hard-and-fast rules about what you can or can’t say. Instead, you must interpret the information you gather from different angles of perspective taking.

6) PRIOR KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCES What you know about a person or situation is critical for determining what to do or say. Consider the different approaches to giving instructions to a colleague who has shared many of the same work expe­riences that you have, versus a new hire who doesn’t know much about your work environment. In the first case, you would give minimal information, figuring the other person already has the same basic knowledge as you do; in the sec­ond case you would give detailed instructions because you know the new hire has limited experience working at the company.

Our minds are like human global positioning systems, trying to find their way around information to keep com­munications moving forward efficiently. In fact, our brains are set up to be highly efficient in relat­ing to each other. That’s why when we fail to give enough information, or we provide too much, people can quickly become irritated with the way we are communicating. They expect us to know enough about them, or at least about the specific situation, to avoid such mistakes most of the time.

Keep in mind that we all make mistakes at times, sharing too much or too little information. If you think you might be sharing too much information, you can always preface your comments with, “Stop me if you already know this.” Listeners also have ways of alerting you if they are famil­iar with what you’re saying, slipping in a comment such as, “Oh, yeah, I’ve already heard that,” which sends a cue that you should skip to another, less familiar part of the story.

7) PERSONALITY We can enjoy relating to all kinds of people. However, the particular way in which we relate to someone has to do in part with how we perceive that individual’s per­sonality. A coworker who is more cerebral might bring out the intellectual side of our personality, while we may share our funny side with someone who we know is more playful, especially during a more relaxed time.

The bottom line is that, to some extent, we are expected to be social chameleons, modifying our behavior according to the people, the situation and how we would best relate. If we do not adapt in this fashion, our behavior could be thought of as odd or it could make people feel uncomfort­able—for instance, if we act overly polite or too informal in situations that do not call for such behaviors.

Andy, who was in his early twenties, was re­cently employed in an entry level job, work­ing for a small company in the shipping and re­ceiving office. While many of Andy’s coworkers were also young men who acted “cool” when they spoke to each other, they adapted their behavior to be more formal in the presence of managers. While Andy was working at his desk one day, the CEO walked in. Andy looked up, tossed his chin in the air to greet the CEO with a head nod, and said, “Yo, what’s up, dude?” Andy’s coworkers laughed at him, knowing it was not the appropriate way to greet the head of the company, even though the work culture was very casual.

Putting it All Together is What’s Expected When Taking Perspective

Perspective taking is never linear, orderly or sequenced. Figur­ing out someone’s mind can be quite a dance. We sidestep what we perceive as potential emotional hotspots and try to maneuver toward areas where we can agree and be comfortable together. However, because we do not always say exactly what we are thinking, often the path of communication can be circuitous. Perspective taking is something like the circus act where the performer sets a bunch of plates spinning one by one on separate poles and then has to keep them going, watching and running from pole to pole to prevent a crash.

The practice of perspective taking has the greatest potential impact on our ability to relate well to others. It can help us figure out how to modify our response according to how others think, and ensure a predictable emotional response from them. This does not mean we must constantly seek to please; on the con­trary, our responses at times can cause disappointment or frus­tration—for instance, if we make a decision at work and some­one else disagrees with it.

Many adults in today’s workforce have social thinking/social learning weaknesses, despite an often brilliant academic mind. While these individuals can fully under­stand each of the perspective taking tenets, they may find their brains are inefficient in processing all this information simulta­neously. Or, it can be challenging to determine the most impor­tant thing to focus on in a particular interaction.

Jacob wanted a letter of recommendation from his boss, who he had worked closely with for two years and considered a friend. Jacob also believed that one of his many strengths was his persistence; therefore, when he didn’t hear back from his boss, Jacob repeatedly contact­ed him to ask if he had written the letter yet. Apparently he had not, so Jacob persisted with requests. When Jacob’s boss finally sent the letter, it was very negative. Jacob felt hurt and upset. Only later did he understand that bugging his boss about the letter had created a negative social mem­ory. He was unable to focus on Jacob’s positive qualities and strengths and was only able to see his weaknesses.

Although relating to our coworkers is of prime importance for effective teamwork, how to do so is not made explicit. We are just supposed to know how to behave when the CEO is present at an important meeting versus at a company barbecue. The be­havioral expectations are established largely by the situation and what is known about the people within it.

The complexity of the perspective taking process is difficult for all, but with practice we grow in competency. This constant but subtle mind-reading—assessing every situation and taking per­spective of people whose paths we cross—can be at times highly accurate and at other times fraught with error. Interpreting and responding to others does not involve black-and-white decision-making, but instead operates in a gray area in which we must constantly handle multiple variables. Our social judgments are based not on the firm foundation of science, but instead on the shaky ground of social interpretation.

Because we all make mistakes, people can be somewhat forgiv­ing—to a point. We all have very active social-emotional memories that store information about people we encounter repeatedly; more important, we remember how these people make us feel overall. If they make us feel good across time, then the relationship is likely to develop. But if our social memories bring up negative or neutral emotions, then we will probably avoid relating to them (and we won’t always remem­ber exactly why).

Thinking consciously about our social behavior—especially when for most people it is signed, sealed and delivered with little conscious thought—is a confusing and often frustrating experi­ence for those not born with a strong intuitive social navigator. Nevertheless, it appears that the ability to relate to peers and co­workers is a key indicator of vocational success (Bronson, 2000).

Working to define these elusive concepts can help us learn about our social operating systems, which can move us in a more positive direction—not only with our coworkers but our family and friends as well. Many people can report successes in their chosen professions, but few proclaim the same confidence about their social skills. Social relationships always have signifi­cant room for improvement.


About the Authors

Michelle Garcia Winner is a Congressional award-winning speech language pathologist, clinician, prolific author, and international speaker who coined the term “social thinking” in the mid-1990s and developed a Social Thinking treatment method for children and adults.

Pamela Crooke is a speech language pathologist, a senior therapist at Winner’s San Jose, CA, treatment clinic, the Social Thinking Center, and is part of the faculty at San Jose State University.

About the Book

Written for the adult who has trouble deciphering the social code of the workplace, Social Thinking at Work: Why Should I Care? is a primer about the inner workings of the social mind while on the job. It teaches core concepts of how we think about our own and others’ thoughts and emotions, and how social thinking is pivotal to achieving success in any environment. Excellent for HR personnel and corporate managers to better understand social thinking across the work day.

About the book >>