A couple of weeks ago my blog focused on a brilliant podcast by Roger Urwin of the Thinking Ahead Institute[i]. Roger’s podcast covered a range of topics but looking to the future of investment, and given the employment changes we’ve faced through COVID, recognised that a different style of leadership is required if firms are to adapt and succeed. Leadership is a topic that gets a lot of airtime, particularly in business publications. Attention is paid to the different styles of leadership and will often showcase individuals, detailing their rise to success and laying out the motivations and drivers that got them there. What is less frequently addressed, however, is the role of the people around those successful individuals and how the influence and actions of those colleagues have acted as the very catalysts that pushed the individual to prominence.
An article in the latest Harvard Business Review by Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist at Wharton, looks at this very topic – ‘persuading the unpersuadable’ with a particular focus on how the mind of Steve Jobs was changed on some key decisions by the people around him.[ii] This brief piece provides some illuminating tactics to deploy to win over even the most stubborn of bosses or intransigent of leaders.
Grant identifies four personality traits and how to deal with them. The first is the ‘know-it-all’. I have been in many work scenarios where I have looked around the meeting room and felt several of the attendees did genuinely know it all. Those individuals exude confidence and will dismiss out of hand any discussion that might involve a counter point to their own view. However, often the premise of their argument was either flawed or incorrect. The ruse that Grant suggests is to get the individual to explain in detail the basis of their understanding of the issue. The request has to be genuine and not seen as a way to trick, but if the knowledge is found to be lacking it can be a useful prompt to reset the discussion.
The second solution Grant covers is how to unlock the stubborn leader who is set on a particular course of action. Here persuasion is unlikely to succeed, particularly when the case against is in the form of a pitch – the leader can easily bat away each of the ‘pros’ with a ‘con’. Instead, conveying some ownership of the idea or concept to the leader can move the thinking along; making the person think that it was partly their idea. I must admit this is a tactic that I find works well on my daughter – she will dead set against an idea unless and until she thinks she has played a role in the formation of the notion. Fortunately, she does not read my blogs, so my tactic remains safe!
How to deal with the narcissist is the next on Grant’s list. Narcissism, characterised as feelings of superiority or being special is perhaps a common trait among leaders, so informing them they are wrong can be a challenge. The tactic here is to identify an area of strength in the individual and praise them for that and swiftly follow it with criticism of the issue at hand. In the case of Steve Jobs the cited example was from a member of the audience at a conference: ”Mr Jobs, you’re a bright and influential man”, Jobs suitably disarmed, followed by “It’s sad and clear on several counts you’ve discussed, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” The response from Jobs was not to attack or go on the defensive; rather he showed humility and recognised his shortcomings.
Finally, Grant deals with disagreeableness, perhaps expressed through argumentativeness. In my experience, people can often be argumentative for its own sake, rather than as a genuine route to debate. Grant’s observation is that by standing up to the argument – even if only momentarily – you can gain the upper hand. The belief is that there will be a sense of admiration from the challenged leader that will be rewarded at some point, even if not necessarily on the immediate argument.
I was struck by this article by focusing on those influencing the leaders rather than on the leaders themselves. It also impressed upon me the need to have a broad skill-set of people around you, so that multiple tactics can be deployed to challenge the assumed orthodoxy. It would be very difficult for that challenge to exist in an environment suffering from groupthink, so – as discussed in other blogs – diversity in all its forms is to be challenged.
[i] [i] https://www.thinkingaheadinstitute.org/videos/coronavirus-wider-perspectives-act-iii/?utm_source=linkedin&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=Investment-Solutions_&utm_content=thinking+ahead+institute_51884e0e-2ec7-4598-86ed-4212bf65b75d_&utm_term=
[ii] Harvard Business Review, March-April 2021, p.131 ‘Persuading the unpersuadable: lessons from science – and the people who were able to sway Steve Jobs.