Over recent weeks, Protagion has been engaging with a number of Chief Executive Officers and Managing Directors connected to the insurance industry, primarily as research for a future ‘Routes to the Top’ article. The conversations have been wide-ranging, and very much reinforced the first lesson we described in a previous article “Shadowing Executives: Top 10 Lessons”: Executives are people too.
One of the other things which struck me during these discussions was just how much change the CEOs/MDs have to manage on a regular basis, with some of them actively seeking out opportunities where change was a necessity and decisions needed to be made. One CEO told me how over his career he’s grown to appreciate more and more how people come from different points of view, sometimes driven by their personal priorities in life. Some people are by nature or circumstance more resistant to change, and we had a great conversation about a leader’s role being to support people through change.
My reflections on that conversation have inspired this post. In personality terms, it is those who are higher on ‘openness’ (and lower on conservatism) and more spontaneous than structured who thrive on change. And, key parts of being a leader are:
This balance of transforming yet preserving stability is incredibly difficult to achieve, and is related to what Jim Collins (of Good to Great* and Built to Last*) referred to as “preserve the core and stimulate progress”. Add to it the reality that different people in your organisation are at different levels of desire for change, and you conclude that the messaging and approach for different people needs to be different (while still retaining the core integrity of the communication). For example, some people respond better to emotional persuasion, while others insist on rational arguments and logic. Some like to see the change in context of the organisation’s history, while others prefer to focus on the new and exciting future. Often a leader is talking to all of these groups at the same time.
So much of this comes down to adjusting your own behaviour depending on who you’re trying to convince... I remember being adamant at university that ‘self-monitoring of behaviour’ was not a desirable activity, probably partly because the lecturer of the course and the tutors were so insistent that it was a good thing. As I’ve aged, I’ve realised that part of the reason I refused to drink the kool aid was that for me, continually adjusting who you purport to be so that others act the way you want was at odds with my strong views on trustworthiness and integrity i.e. stand firm in yourself.
My favoured approach to persuasion has been to provide the audience with the information they need, including detail where they as individuals desire it, and let them make their own minds up. I see this as treating the individuals as adults, and giving them space to ask for support if they need it. I recognise though that there are circumstances where this doesn’t work e.g. where the audience prefers to follow someone else’s endorsement, if speedy action is required, or where you have a strong vested outcome in the choice.
I’ve seen the complete opposite, especially in the sales environment, where one of the sales gurus in our wider team tried around ten different approaches to convince me to waive our standard terms on a specific case. Ten different approaches over the course of a coffee break conversation (!), including how it would be a favour to him, how my team would get the credit for the large case, how delighted the broker would be, how much hard work had already gone into the quote etc – I’m not sure why he felt those ‘hard sell’ techniques would work on me, and his scattergun approach led me to believe that he didn’t actually have a great reason.
To me, that’s dangerously close to manipulation, but has worked very well for him in both getting what he wanted and preserving the relationship with the individuals concerned. My natural inclination in those situations would have been to be upfront about my opinion, and that I disagreed, then moving onto finding common ground, but with certain types of people, any disagreement can scupper further dialogue.
Another technique I’ve used over my career is to reframe the issue for myself. Rather than thinking about it subconsciously in terms of an argument over whose opinion is ‘right’ and there being ‘winners and losers’, I’ve found it helpful to think about persuading the individual to do what is good for them, even if this will only be evident in the long run. In other words, this requires you to suspend your desire to get the outcome you want, and instead focus on what is good for the other person. Reframing it in this way helps both to preserve your integrity (rather than manipulate for your own ends) as well as work towards something that leads to meaningful positive change for the individual. For example, I’ve used this approach previously in working with a team member for them to see that their existing role wasn’t what they really wanted (which was manifesting in demotivation and poor performance) and instead supporting them to find something that inspired them.
All of which brings me back to the role of a leader being to support people through change. Sometimes that means that there is a strong role for them in the transformed organisation, where they’ve learnt new skills and grown through the change; at other times, the new direction and purpose of the organisation may not be right for their personal aspirations and parting ways allows the individual to find what’s right for them (skills-wise and motivation-wise).
I’m very interested to hear your perspectives on persuasion: what techniques have you used yourself? What techniques have you seen others use, and were they successful? And, when does persuasion cross the line into manipulation?
PS: One of our Board of Advisors likes to refer to "preserve the core and stimulate progress" as "strengthen the core and stimulate progress", which I agree implies growth in both areas: bettering what you're good at and innovating simultaneously. I think her inspiration came from the pilates classes she's been recommended to attend, demonstrating that great ideas can come from anywhere!
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