If Komatsu decides to cut prices in a bid to grow its market share, will Caterpillar match the cuts? If Amazon makes a full-out run at the grocery business, will Kroger compete online? If Google refuses to censor Internet searches, will China’s government deny its citizens access to the search engine? Predicting the actions and reactions of competitors—and other stakeholders—is often an essential element in executive decision making, and getting those predictions wrong can have costly consequences.
Historian Zachary Shore believes leaders in all spheres can reduce decision risks and improve the accuracy of their predictions by developing a skill that he calls strategic empathy. In his fourth and latest book, A Sense of the Enemy: The High Stakes History of Reading Your Rival’s Mind (Oxford University Press, 2014), the professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, a research university operated by the U.S. Navy in Monterey, Calif., offers a new perspective on predicting the behavior of others. Shore discussed his findings and their applications with strategy+business.
S+B: What is strategic empathy, and why does it matter?
SHORE: Strategic empathy is the ability to step out of our own heads and into the minds of others. It’s the ability to discern someone else’s underlying drivers and constraints—to understand what makes someone tick.
The idea behind strategic empathy has been around for a long time in the military and politics. Two thousand years ago, Sun Tzu wrote about the importance of thinking like the enemy. What we don’t have is a reliable way of doing it.
S+B: How did you get interested in this idea?
SHORE: My larger interest is judgment, especially in foreign affairs. I want to understand why people make the decisions they make, and how that affects historical outcomes. My first three books were all inquiries into bad judgment. They led me to A Sense of the Enemy, which explores how we read other people by focusing on leaders at key moments in international conflicts in the 20th century.
I’m also naturally curious about how we develop a sense for what someone else is thinking and feeling. I was legally blind by age 16, and there was a gradual degeneration after that. I don’t think that my blindness sparked my broader interest in judgment and the causes of war, but being unable to read body language or facial expressions has certainly led me to think about how we read other people.
S+B: What did you learn about reading other people that was new in the course of writing this book?
SHORE: Two things. First, reading others requires going deeper than their intentions and capabilities, things that are often analyzed in military affairs. We need to get down to the level of drivers and constraints.
Intentions are manifestations of a person’s underlying drivers. When you understand why people have certain intentions—what’s driving them—you can better anticipate what their future intentions will be. The same is true of capabilities. We often ask what a leader is able to do. But leaders can have all sorts of capabilities at their disposal, and still be constrained by a whole host of factors beyond their control, from things as concrete as financial constraints to things as ephemeral as the Zeitgeist, which, as Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and other Middle Eastern leaders recently discovered, can be a game changer.
The second and main insight involves a method for understanding another person’s drivers and constraints. And that is by focusing on the behavior of your subject at pattern breaks.
S+B: Okay, we’ll bite. What are pattern breaks?
SHORE: The conventional approach to reading others is based on pattern recognition. That’s what Amazon and Google are focused on, using big data to predict what products we will buy and what our interests are. Patterns can be useful, but they can also be highly misleading. They can tell you how someone acted in the past, but that may not matter if the context has changed significantly. My book’s main argument is that we can better understand our opponents’ drivers and constraints from their behavior at pattern breaks—at times when deviations from the routine occur.