Persuasion and Real Change

Soft Skills for Hard Tasks

January 16, 2013

I read a compelling essay yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that may offer valuable insights for those involved in change management efforts (and who isn't, in one arena or another?). The author was John Jenkins, President of the University of Notre Dame, and the subject was persuasion. In my mind, persuasion is the lynchpin of any initiative to lead change.

After the technical tasks and logistics of implementing a process change have been identified and mapped out, success boils down to people and their inherent reluctance to do things differently. Convincing people to overcome that reluctance is an act of persuasion — a neglected art at the heart of change management.

Father Jenkins tells this story to frame the discussion:

"Several decades ago, my predecessor as the president of the University of Notre Dame, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, was presented with a dilemma. A Jewish student, after repeated hazing by some kids in his dorm, had left campus and gone home. After thinking it over, Father Hesburgh summoned the perpetrators. 'Pack your bags,' he told them. 'Go find your friend. Either you persuade him to come back to Notre Dame, or you don't come back.'

The approach worked for everyone concerned, and it may offer an idea for easing the incivility that marks much public discourse and leads to political stalemate. We need to try harder to persuade one another — to try to get people to change their minds."

It's easy to get lost in the mechanics of one or another "change management" model and forget that real change starts with persuasion, and persuasion starts with listening.

I'm reminded of the Lean mantra: Go to gemba; ask questions; show respect. It seems to me that the effort to involve front line employees early in the change process, listening to their concerns, then acting with those concerns in mind, are the first necessary steps toward effective persuasion.

Jenkins continues:

"If I am trying to persuade others, I first have to understand their position, which means I have to listen to them. I have to appeal to their values, which means I have to show them respect. I have to find the best arguments for my position, which means I have to think about my values in the context of their concerns. I have to answer their objections, which means I have to work honestly with their ideas. I have to ask them to listen to me, which means I can't insult them.

If we earnestly try to persuade, civility takes care of itself."

Think about your last effort to effect sustained change. Did the plan include a sincere attempt to persuade? Did that attempt start with listening, or did it start with telling?

Here's a link to the WSJ story (you may need a subscription to view).

Bill Hathaway