Why You Need to Worry About Changing Other People’s Minds

by Krishna on July 6, 2011

Yesterday’s rambling post about beliefs may have seemed rather irrelevant to the subject of this blog, but actually there was some meaning to the madness. Many different business and project contexts require an understanding of how people think and how you can convince them of something different. To give a few examples:

  1. A customer has strongly held, but not well thought-out beliefs of what a web application should look like. Most customers think they should provide input, but usually only the user interface is something that they feel competent to comment on. But many times, their suggestions are either technically impractical or not user-friendly. Think of the zillions of Flash websites. You need to convince such a customer that something less flashy would, in fact, bring more revenue to them.
  2. You are a manager who feels that the organization’s performance rating system does not reward your team members well enough. You need the ability to convince your superiors and the HR crew that the system needs to change now.
  3. You are dealing with a team with a mix of junior and senior employees. The junior employees are highly energetic and want to try the latest and greatest. The senior employees are very experienced and want to implement the tried-and-tested techniques. You will probably need a blends of both approaches, but you could end up frustrating one or both sides if you cannot convince them of your thinking.
  4. Working on a project, you realize that you need more support from other groups than they normally do. On the other hand, they are already busy with their existing work. How can you convince them to prioritize the help that you need?

In many of these cases, you cannot rely on authority or power to get what you want. You have to understand what the other side is thinking and use the right arguments to convince them. But the problem is as I wrote yesterday, the strength of your arguments are not enough. Let me illustrate with a few examples:

  1. The customer asking you to build a web application may consist of multiple people, one of who takes the leadership role and provides suggestions. When you contradict that person with logical arguments in your favor, you may be forcing that person to acknowledge a mistake in their understanding in front of others, some of whom may be their subordinates. This results in a loss of their authority. To allow them to save face, you may need to provide your contrary feedback in a private setting, allowing them to accept your arguments without the pressure of other people watching.
  2. Changing a compensation plan may have wide consequences for people’s compensation throughout the company. What you may not realize is that the people in charge may have no appetite to deal with angry employees because they may have implemented other (even well-meaning) company-wide changes and had to deal with the blowback. So they would rather see a few people being under-compensated than deal with irate employees asking why some people are suddenly pulling down lots of money. In such situations, the person in charge may have decided that you are the problem and has to come to convince you, instead of coming to a discussion to discuss the plan. The two sides, therefore, have no common objective.
  3. Let us say that your team of junior and senior employees is evenly and clearly divided into those two groups. The question is, where are YOU perceived to be? Do the junior employees think that you are an old hand and therefore are arguing on their behalf? Or do the senior employees think that you are too quick to side with the junior employees? Because whichever side you are branded with becomes your destiny. You are then fighting a battle with the other side and they will find ways to be on the opposite of other things that you advocate. You have to find ways to be neutral. Better still, get the team members to be united in the first place and not form the opposing groups.
  4. You wanted the help from the admin group because you were moving to the cloud. But wait a minute — the cloud could theoretically put admins out of work. Or even without job losses, the group could lose considerable clout. So instead of getting help, you could be the victim of FUD, where your initiative could be accused of increasing costs — the exact opposite of what you wanted.

These examples show that the logic of your position is not the only issue at stake with many other issues at play. The naive approach is to go into a debate thinking of only the merits of the issue. A better approach is to understand why and how the other side would think of opposing you. And even to realize that sometimes even if the facts say that you are 100% right, the other side may not be interested in agreeing with you for several reasons. And you may have to either live with it or try to overcome that opposition through other means.

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