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Leading Off
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‘If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend,’ said Abraham Lincoln in a speech to the Washington Temperance Society. What Lincoln advised in 1842 contains an important lesson about influence and persuasion for today’s leaders: simply commanding someone to adopt your idea or take your side is as effective as using a straw to poke through “the hard shell of a tortoise.” However, if someone likes you, they are much more willing to listen and be open to being influenced. Leading effectively requires persuasion—always a tricky business for leaders when dealing with human beings and their convictions and biases. This week, let’s bolster your persuasive powers, looking closely at the art of persuasion, the science behind changing human behavior, and why you might already have more influence than you think.
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Reciprocity is a powerful persuasion principle
The next time you do someone a favor and they thank you for it, don’t just say that it was nothing, advises Robert Cialdini, a leading expert on influence and persuasion. Instead, say something like, “That’s what partners do for each other.” By labeling the exchange as a partnership, you are making it more likely that the person you are speaking with will step up the next time you need help. Humans are hardwired to treat one another in kind: that’s the power and principle of reciprocity. When someone pays us a compliment or does something nice, we tend to feel obligated and want to do the same. Reciprocity is also why, in one study, restaurant servers who gave their customers a small piece of candy received bigger tips than those who didn’t. In the workplace, wielding influence well means helping people out early and often and modeling behaviors you wish to elicit from colleagues.
Changing people’s mindsets and behaviors is incredibly challenging and can be frustrating, but there’s no getting around it when leaders need to make large-scale organizational changes. Consider using an influence model that consists of four key actions that promote behavior change: fostering understanding and conviction, reinforcing changes through formal mechanisms, developing talent and skills, and role modeling. When McKinsey experts asked more than 1,600 executives in a global survey about transformation efforts at their companies, the researchers learned that successful transformations were nearly eight times more likely when leaders put all four actions into practice.
“We have this sense of obliviousness about the trail of chaos or trail of positivity that we leave behind us.”
That’s Cornell University professor and social psychologist Vanessa Bohns on how we tend to overlook the influence we already have. She notes that we typically don’t realize how many people may imitate our behavior or change theirs because of something we said or did. A lot of the messaging on influence is about how to gain more of it to persuade people to do what we want, but in fact, people are a lot more willing than we think to pay attention to us or do us a favor, contends Bohns. She notes that routinely in her research projects, there are some participants who can persuade strangers to do outlandish things—such as lying for them and vandalizing books—simply by asking them. That means even when we’re feeling invisible or powerless, we have reason to be confident in our ability to persuade.
four spheres
Ever been on the verge of ordering a double cheeseburger and then think twice after seeing the number of calories printed on the menu? If so, you’ve just been nudged to choose a healthier option. In this interview, behavioral economists Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler discuss the myriad ways that organizations use nudges—subtle interventions that influence individuals’ behaviors without restricting their choices—to affect change. “Nudges help people deal with a fact about the human brain—which is that we have limited attention,” Sunstein says. “A nudge can get us to pay attention.”
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Since we humans are irrational and don’t always act in our own best interests, many leaders use insights from behavioral science to make it easier and more intuitive for people to make better decisions. Our understanding of the unconscious mind can help organizations move away from addressing bad behaviors after they’ve happened. Instead, organizational leaders can pinpoint the types of behavior that they wish to see, heading less desirable behaviors off at the pass. For instance, healthcare organizations are testing the use of personalized behavioral interventions to motivate patients to exercise more and eat better. So maybe the next time you go for that double cheeseburger, you’ll skip the fries and order a salad.
Lead persuasively.
— Edited by Belinda Yu, an assistant managing editor in McKinsey’s Atlanta office
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