Few communication goals are more alluring than trying to persuade (a.k.a seduce) people to embrace new ideas and behaviors. It’s one reason organizations continue communicating with employees as an audience to be directed with messages instead of a community to be engaged through conversation.
But it’s a trap. As with other forms of “seduction,” people usually see through it…and often resent it. That’s especially true if they get a whiff of being manipulated by the well-known “trust-me-this-is-going-to-be-good-for-you-even-if-it-doesn’t-look-like-it” sell-job. What’s more, even if they DON’T object to the message, that kind of “outside-in” approach to communication seldom creates a sustainable sense of responsibility and ownership among employees. Instead, it comes off like a pep rally that pumps people up just long enought to cheer for the next game.
Insights from two thought-provoking communication specialists illustrate the hazards of the persuasion trap – and how to avoid it.
Let Employees Persuade Themselves
In 7 Steps to Becoming Invaluable, an interactive development program, Dale Furtwengler identifies counterintuitive thinking as a key to effective leadership communication. One way to develop that capability is to avoid the “myth of persuasion.” He asserts that people rarely can be persuaded to believe or do anything they aren’t already inclined to believe and do. “The best we can do,” says Furtwengler, “is to shine the light on new information, allow others to process it, validate their conclusions with their own experiences and persuade themselves.”
Perhaps even more disconcerting for would-be persuaders, studies show that even if it appears people have been persuaded to change, they often haven’t – and their behavior will show it. As one old saying goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
“Normal” Communication Won’t Work
So does that mean we should stop trying to reach employees in an effort to foster change? Hardly. In his book, The Secret Language of Leadership, Stephen Denning offers an approach that, once again, is somewhat counterintuitive. He describes the “familiar trinity of steps” in communication as:
1) defining the problem,
2) analyzing the options and
3) recommending solutions.
It’s the “normal” way of communicating that’s been part of the Western intellectual tradition since the ancient Greeks. “But if you’re trying to get human beings to change what they are doing and act in some fundamentally new way with sustained energy and enthusiasm, it has two serious problems,” says Denning. “One, it doesn’t work. And two, it often makes the situation worse.”
Stories of Engagement
Denning provides another three-step model for engaging employees in change:
1) Get people’s attention – with captivating, authentic stories acknowledging current challenges and negative conditions
2) Stimulate desire for change – with positive stories of possibility and hope that move people to action
3) Reinforce the desire for change – with reasons told through neutral stories that explain what, when, how and why
Beware of changing the order, though. Interestingly, Denning’s experience shows if you move it around, it’s likely to backfire. So give it a go, and see how well you connect with people.
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