In business and in life, many of our interactions benefit from perspective taking, or our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. In a unique corporate partnership with SEB, a leading Swedish corporate bank, The Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, explores the neural basis of perspective taking and its effects on collaboration and business outcomes. In this piece, Wharton marketing professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt, Vera Ludwig, Elizabeth Johnson, and Per Hugander shed light on the neural basis of perspective taking and why it may lead to more innovation and better business outcomes. 

What Is Perspective Taking?

According to Martin Lorentzon, co-founder of Spotify and Tradedoubler, “The value of your company is equal to the sum of the problems you are able to solve.” But how can we build this problem-solving capability into our organizations? Neuroscience suggests that one key strategy may be taking the perspective of others. Not only does this crucial skill provide us with additional information about complex situations, it also activates brain regions linked with creativity and innovation.

Indeed, many frameworks and tools for solving tough and complex problems are centered around the ability to take the perspective of others. Innovation frameworks start with taking the customer’s perspective; collaboration and negotiation frameworks are centered around understanding others’ viewpoints; and dialogue models recommend postponing judgment in order to take different perspectives for solving numerous challenges from business issues to marital problems.

When considering how often perspective taking appears in the problem-solving literature, it is surprising that so few leaders invest time and effort in developing this skill. Even though organizations frequently use the aforementioned tools and frameworks, including the well-known approach of Design Thinking, the results may be suboptimal if individuals are not skilled in perspective taking itself.

Improving Perspective Taking within Organizations

Based on the premise that perspective-taking ability can be improved through practice, in 2018, SEB, a Swedish corporate bank, launched a cutting-edge initiative. The aim is to enhance perspective-taking skills and to apply them to SEB’s most important business challenges (featured in Amy Edmondson’s case study “Leading Culture Change at SEB”). Since then, many leaders within SEB have participated in a systematic group training process to build perspective-taking skills. According to the case study, the ability to solve problems and make decisions improved, as did inclusion, cross-collaboration, and risk management.

A survey conducted by the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative (WiN) with SEB managers in summer 2020 indicated that leaders who had completed several training sessions before the COVID-19 pandemic reported that they were better able to respond to remote and distributed work necessitated by social distancing measures. For example, one participant commented:

“Being part of the … process before the COVID-19 outbreak has made it easier for our management group to tackle challenges related to a distributed way of working. We have more or less been able to perform on the same level as before the outbreak.”

In the following paragraphs, we shed light on why perspective-taking training may be beneficial, taking into account neuroscientific findings, and we show evidence that perspective taking and its underlying neural mechanisms can be enhanced through practice. Importantly, perspective taking may improve business outcomes not only by giving us access to more information than we would have without it, but also by ramping up activity in core brain regions involved in creative problem-solving and innovation.

What Happens in the Brain When We Take a New (or Someone Else’s) Perspective?

When we are trying to solve a problem, the frontoparietal attention network activates, meaning that areas at the front and the side of your brain are at work. However, when we take the perspective of another person, we engage a different network, often called the “mentalizing,” or theory-of-mind, network. This has two key components: the temporoparietal junction, located just above and behind the ear, and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which lies just behind the middle of your forehead. These areas help us understand what others know, want, need or find important.

Importantly, the “mentalizing” network partially overlaps with the so-called default mode network. This term was initially chosen because researchers at Washington University in St. Louis discovered that this network became active when people took a break from active problem-solving. After years of research, we now know that this network is activated during exploration, imagination, innovation, thinking outside the box, and engaging in mental time travel by thinking back to the past or imagining possible futures. For those reasons, we often call it the “exploration” network. Thus, perspective taking engages both the mentalizing and exploration networks, perhaps because getting inside someone else’s head requires getting outside our own.

Our lab at Penn is one of the few that has studied the exploration, or default mode network, using techniques other than brain imaging, and has investigated what happens when we turn this network up or down. We have shown that the exploration network is engaged when we search for new alternatives or deviate from routines. Boosting activity in this network provokes selection of options we typically wouldn’t take into consideration. Temporarily turning off a key part of the default mode network impairs learning about new options through exploration, though memory for old routines remains intact.

When the exploration network is turned down, we might have difficulties learning new jobs or generating new ideas. These findings align with a survey conducted at Wharton. The authors found that during the current pandemic workers were just as productive working at home (and sometimes more so) as they were when working in the office prior to the pandemic. Unfortunately, they were much less innovative. These findings cohere with the idea that both our “mentalizing” and “exploration” networks are less engaged when working remotely, perhaps because there are fewer opportunities for high-quality social interactions. While productively executing routine tasks is still possible, innovation is compromised.

Thus, turning up the exploration network through regular perspective taking might allow us to come up with better ideas and hence make better decisions. Experimental studies show that triggering an exploration mindset leaves people more creative, but precisely how long these effects last remains unknown.

“Perspective taking may improve business outcomes not only by giving us access to more information than we would have without it, but also by ramping up activity in core brain regions involved in creative problem-solving and innovation.”

Practice Makes Perfect When It Comes to Perspective Taking

Neuroscience data shows that investing time and energy into social interaction changes the brain in ways that should enhance perspective taking. Several studies conducted at Oxford University found that the social brain network — which includes areas involved in mentalizing — in monkeys grows when the animals are challenged with learning how to get along with larger numbers of social partners. And people with larger and better-connected social brain networks actually have more friends. Tania Singer’s team in Germany showed that, just like in monkeys, the social brain network grew in response to nine months of exercises that included perspective taking. Thus, the mentalizing network is like a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

Perspective Taking Examples and Activities

One exercise Per Hugander developed to improve perspective taking encouraged participants to reflect on recent, specific examples of perspective taking and share them with colleagues. In a second exercise, participants were encouraged to visualize potential situations in the future when they might benefit from perspective taking (e.g., a conversation with a spouse or at a business meeting). Hugander instructs people to pay particular attention to details and write them down. These exercises are repeated bi-weekly.

These procedures are useful because imagination and memory can activate brain regions similar to those activated during a real experience, and our brains learn to repeat thoughts and actions that lead to good outcomes. In essence, the human brain is nature’s greatest statistical pattern learning device. This means that the more you exercise perspective taking (whether remembered, imagined, or real), the more it will be reinforced. Over time, perspective taking is likely to become more automatic.

Other stimulating perspective taking activities like drawing our problems, as well as our opportunities, in the form of pictures, having conversations with strangers, trying out new things, and reading novels that transport us into the mind of a character, all seem to activate our exploration and mentalizing networks. WiN Executive Director and Senior Fellow Elizabeth Johnson, who is a visual neuroscientist, routinely leads sessions on visual perspective taking for learners of all levels (undergraduates, MBA students, alumni, and corporate executives) at Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, an extraordinary art collection and educational institution. In her exercise, small teams discuss how each individual perceives an artwork. In the course of discussion, they begin to integrate the perspectives of others and how this may differ from their own. Through this process they discover new ideas, connections, and a willingness to expand their views, and these benefits often extend beyond the museum context. These are all powerful ways to push us to think outside the box, thereby enhancing innovation and decision-making.

Putting It All Together

Perspective taking might not only provide new data in complex situations, but it can also activate networks in our brains that are associated with creative thinking and exploration. One can speculate that this is one reason why the likelihood of innovative ideas increases during perspective taking. In the long run, frequent and skilled perspective taking may enhance the ability to innovate, collaborate and make good decisions.

In ongoing studies, postdoctoral fellows Vera Ludwig and Scott Rennie are working with Hugander using new tools developed at WiN to measure the impact of perspective-taking training on turn-taking while speaking and emotional synchrony during online videoconferencing. Given that many teams will continue to work remotely after the pandemic, these studies will provide vital data for understanding how to optimize online teams, which has been notoriously challenging during remote work.

If you as a leader want to start strengthening your perspective-taking skills, or help your team improve theirs, the WiN-SEB team has published a Nano Tool providing step-by-step instructions with concrete exercises that require as little as five minutes each.

Michael Platt is a neuroscientist and director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, a professor in the Perelman School of Medicine and the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of The Leader’s Brain. Vera Ludwig is a research associate in the Platt Labs and the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative. Elizabeth Johnson is the executive director and senior fellow at the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative. Per Hugander is a strategic adviser and previous head of leadership and organizational development at SEB, as well as the founder of iero leadership development and previous adviser to tech scaleups such as Truecaller, Fishbrain, and Lifesum.