Are You A Mind-Changer?

Originally appeared at Inc.

It’s not easy to win people over. Whether you’re pitching to a skeptical investor, negotiating with a tough client, or sharing feedback with your team, the act of persuading others can drain time, emotion and resources — and doesn’t always produce a favorable result. People often resist information that doesn’t conform to their tastes or views, making it difficult for competing messages and ideas to break through.

But according to Wharton professor Jonah Berger, we’re going about persuasion the wrong way. In his new book, The Catalyst, Berger argues that our default ‘push’ approach to persuasion, or doubling down on efforts to get our point across, can actually backfire. To change people’s minds, Berger identifies several barriers to acceptance and provides straightforward suggestions on how to bring skeptics over to your side. 

Mix options with opportunities. 

Most people crave control and find change directives disempowering. A client company in the financial services industry learned this the hard way when it tried to roll out a new HR system with a flashy all-hands presentation. Employees gave the announcement a tepid response, noting the process felt shallow and sales-like. Only when senior leadership organized targeted feedback forums to learn more about employee concerns did momentum for the project build. 

To more effectively persuade your staff, tap into their desire for agency and choice. For change initiatives, provide different options that offer employees a say in how they fulfill new requirements. After listening to employee feedback about its HR platform, my client allowed individuals to choose which features they would adopt in the phase-in period, raising adoption rates and building goodwill that might have otherwise been much harder to achieve.

Shrink the process of change. 

To be more persuasive, you must overcome the unwillingness of others to part ways with ideas and actions they trust, something social scientists call the ‘endowment effect.’ To the change-averse, this is a powerful countermeasure — if things are working, why reconsider? Getting others to let go of the status quo often requires a shift in tactics. You have to make the prospect of change seem a lot smaller than it first appears.

A healthcare client trying to boost employee participation in a wellness program made good use of this shrinking strategy. Rather than set ambitious goals for diet and exercise, employees were asked to describe their current behaviors, then scale them back by a small degree. People accustomed to drinking three cans of sodas a day cut back to two; sedentary employees started taking ten-minute walks around the campus. Over time, these micro changes grew into larger habits. By offering your employees an easy way to get started, you will lower their cost of trying. 

Alleviate uncertainty with clear information.  

Few people will reconsider their beliefs or behaviors without clear supporting information. Before asking your team to make a switch, come prepared with clear information that addresses their most basic concerns: Will a new product be better than the old one? Will a new initiative really save money? Will voting for this proposal improve my life or the lives of those I care about?

Frame issues in terms that people will find understandable and relatable. A good strategy here is to know your subject so well that you could explain it to a child. If you can explain yourself effectively to someone who has no background on the subject, you can certainly make a persuasive case with someone who does. 

To change someone’s beliefs or behaviors, don’t just push harder — clear away the hard issues. It’s much easier to get others to shift their positions when they feel in charge of making their own moves.

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