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Blue or gold? What that dress tells us about our entrenched perspectives

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

What did you see? Was the dress blue/black or white/gold? Were you steadfast in your belief based on what you saw or were you open to listening to the opinions of others?

When a user on the social media site Tumblr posted a photo of the now infamous blue/black–white/gold dress that was later picked up on Buzzfeed, it started an Internet sensation that rivalled the Ice Bucket Challenge. In households, workplaces and on public transit, the real colour of the dress was hotly debated. In my own experience, we were a family divided; I saw blue/black but my husband saw white/gold. As we debated over breakfast, I realized the dress controversy went beyond a discussion of colour perception.

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From a leadership perspective, we often become entrenched in our viewpoints, and it is difficult to shift and adapt to see others. The dress debate brings to light some of the most crucial qualities leaders must have to build consensus and succeed.

We see what we look for

The first question the dress addresses is how we interact. So often we assume we are talking about the same thing when in fact we're not. We all bring history and personal context to discussions, but as leaders are we mindful of the fact we all bring different things? It is important to check and get clarity. Leaders need to demonstrate the openness to act based upon the fact that our individual experiences mean we may approach things differently from others.

How we see the problem may be the problem

I am an advocate of the importance of starting points. In business, we often assume we are solving a problem from a common place, and we can become frustrated when the process and the solution are divisive. In reality, by examining the various starting points, we can develop a more comprehensive solution. As leaders, we must be able to step back and acknowledge that what we see may actually be part of the problem.

More than rods and cones

If you go to the Buzzfeed website, the scientific perspective explains that the colours individuals perceive are based on a variety of factors – lighting being just one of them. You'll also learn that science actually doesn't have a definitive explanation as to why we see the dress colours differently. Effective leaders embrace this kind of ambiguity and value the truly diverse nature of their work force. When we approach different viewpoints with an open mind, we will gain a greater trust and connection with our teams and the ability to develop solutions that are more wide-ranging.

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Say yes to the dress

Ultimately, an enthusiastic "say yes to the dress" approach is what's needed by leaders. The next time you don't agree with someone's opinion, try to say yes. And try to see what they see. Your view may not necessarily change, but you will have been fully open to the possibilities.

Shirlee Sharkey (@ShirleeSharkey) is president and CEO of Saint Elizabeth, a national health care provider and social innovator. Read her blog at http://www.saintelizabeth.com/About-Saint-Elizabeth/CEO-Blog.aspx

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