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Contributor: G. Richard Shell, Wharton Professor of Law and Business Ethics and author of The Conscience Code: Lead with Your Values. Advance your career. Shell is also co-author of the book The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas.
Increase your influence and get more of what you want by mastering the art of persuasion.
Convincing others to go along with a course of action, agree to a commitment, or accept a decision can be difficult, even for very experienced leaders. Often this is due to the misconception that it’s all about the evidence: present your data-backed arguments and you will win. In fact, persuasion is not just about rhetoric. There is still a long way to go before you even reach out to an individual or team.
First you need to understand who to talk to and, just as important, in what order. This means identifying the connections between people and drawing the shortest distance between any two of them in an organization (hint: it’s almost never a straight line). Once you have a plan for how to strategically reach out to the right people in the right order, you need to determine what you want from each person.
Have a very specific objective for each encounter. It must not be money or authority. You might need them to open the door for someone they know better than you or to give you access to important information. Having a systematic strategy for these conversations is better than just following your gut every time. You need to be clear about who can resist, what type of resistance it is, and how to adjust your pitch to address them better. A one-size-fits-all approach is almost always doomed to fail.
- It’s always about relationships. An African proverb says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” Throughout the workday, ask yourself, “In this interaction, how can I leave the relationship better than I found it? Can I find a way to help this person solve a problem, support them in an important task, or reassure them that their efforts are noticed and appreciated?”
- Get their attention. Develop and practice the perfect five-minute pitch. No one will listen for more than five minutes if you don’t get it right. We teach a simple four-step structure for this pitch: 1) formulate the problem in a way they can understand and accept as legitimate 2) explain how the problem arose 3) propose your answer in simple terms, and 4) the Justify reason Your answer is the best compared to obvious alternatives.
- Give them credit. When you make others look good, they want to support you. By far the most powerful motivator in the social aspects of work is the need to feel respected and valued. Self-esteem is like oxygen – people need it to live. If you share the credit for success in important endeavors, and if possible simply pass the credit on to others wholeheartedly, people will return to you like bees return to a flower that nurtured them. Of course, it doesn’t pay to be a doormat when others take credit for things you do. But if you can be generous, be as generous as possible.
- practice fairness. There’s a saying in the American South, “Pigs get fat, but hogs get eaten.” Build confidence by refusing to go too far. Working relationships thrive on reciprocity, giving and receiving favors, adjustments, variety, and the sharing of information. If you’re seen primarily as a “taker” in social interactions, people won’t want to work with you anymore. This throws a spanner in the works and ultimately makes your job much, much harder.
- develop multiple paths, Then choose the best one for most people. Brainstorming a variety of options for solving problems, rather than settling on the first one you happen to stumble across, gives you the opportunity to improve working relationships with more people. They also solve problems in a way that doesn’t create new or unexpected problems for others. Chances are that the first solution you find will work fine for you, but the second or third might work just as well for you, but also better for others. To put it simply: get detailed advice before you decide what to do. Then examine the available options from multiple perspectives, not just your own.
Having a systematic strategy for these conversations is better than just following your gut every time.
How a leader uses it:
When Tyler Odean was Google’s product lead for Chrome, he wanted to push a controversial project forward. A senior engineer disagreed. “For various reasons,” he says, “this person could not attend the decision-making session. It would have been really easy to crank up the scoreboard and only make arguments in my favour. But that would have counteracted the team’s desire to understand the truth. I worked hard to present the case the engineer would have made had he been there. When the decision on my proposal was made, no one felt it was a gimmick. I didn’t try to sweep his arguments under the rug, but treated them with respect. I was an honorable interlocutor.”
Odean, who also served as product lead at Pinterest, says good persuasion is subtle. “The most persuasive people have the fewest conflicts. You can have a big, dramatic argument and get what you want. In reality, however, this is a failure. Winning this way means you narrowly won people over. Whatever you want in a given situation, it is small compared to the total number of things you want out of that relationship over time. We sometimes have a zero-sum mindset: go in and win through sheer willpower. That’s not what I consider a belief. You need to be open with the other person and try to reach a consensus together. If people think your point of view is burned in before they speak to you, or if you come off as an ideologue, you’re a threat that needs to be averted. Instead, reach out to others as allies. You seek truth with them instead of being an outside force.”
Knowledge in Action: Related Executive Education Programs
Richard Shell teaches at Wharton Executive Education Negotiation Workshop for Executives: Negotiate with Confidence, Strategic Persuasion Workshop: The Art and Science of Selling Ideas, Advanced Management Programamong other.
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