The Power of Cognitive Flexibility and Persuasion

“In a turbulent world, success depends not just on cognitive horsepower but also on cognitive flexibility. When leaders lack the wisdom to question their convictions, followers need the courage to persuade them to change their minds.” – Organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, PhD

As a coach, I work with some really incredible people who have an amazing depth of wisdom. They rely on their knowledge, skills, experience, and intuition, and it serves them well. However, they will also be the first to tell you that there have been times when they regret rejecting the opinions and ideas of others in favor of their own, let’s just say, unwise ideas.

When asked what led up to this, some will point to blind spots, or hidden bias. But others confess to simple over confidence: they wouldn’t listen to others and held fast to what they believed to be true.

It’s not uncommon for leaders. After all, their expertise often catapults them to where they are today. But, have you noticed how truly great leaders have the wisdom and courage to question their own convictions?

They do this with three key tactics:

  1. Accept that everyone has limits, including you.
  2. Surround yourself with a diversity of experts and empower them to ethically and courageously persuade you.
  3. Practice flexibility, collaboration, and compromise.

Sounds simple enough, but…why don’t we “just do it?”

Why We Believe Everything We Think

First, it’s easy to forget that we don’t know what we don’t know. Add to that how facts quickly change, either through new data, discoveries, or perspectives, and what was once right may be outdated.

Second, as leaders it’s our job to persuade others to follow us—our vision, our strategy, and our plans, even if there is a better way (or we are wrong!) Changing how we see ourselves can feel threatening.

Third, we are hard-wired to conserve mental energy. We learn something, and move on. In today’s highly competitive and fast-paced world, there is no time for second-guessing ourselves. As Adam Grant, PhD, writes in Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know(Viking, 2021), “questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable.”

Finally (or for now), we—including those around us—often don’t know how to use persuasion effectively. One solution to believing everything we think is to practice ethical persuasion. I’ll dive in to this in another post.

The Power of Persuasion

“A hallmark of wisdom is knowing when it’s time to abandon some of your most treasured tools, and some of the most cherished parts of your identity.” – Adam Grant

Even highly intelligent people are prone to bias that prevent them from changing their mind about a strongly held conviction. This stems, in part, from the way our brains categorize new information so that it can store and retrieve it later. When we do retrieve that information, we must re-examine it, which can be especially challenging for highly intelligent people. You see, we must search for reasons why we might be wrong, rather than being right, and adjust our understanding and convictions accordingly.

Fortunately, as Grant writes in the Harvard Business Review (March-April 2021) article, “Persuading the Unpersuadable,” it is possible for know-it-alls to learn something new (or unlearn something), for the most stubborn to change course, the narcissistic to demonstrate empathy, and the contrarian to accept and support new or different information.

Persuading the Arrogant

Depending on your knowledge, understanding, and skill level, it can be a real lesson in humility. There’s nothing like walking someone through a process to help us identify our own gaps. And it’s a great technique to overcome arrogance. Rather than point out ignorance directly, ask the know-it-all to walk you through the explanation step-by-step.

Persuading the Narcissist

While narcissism involves arrogance, it can go beyond attitude to action, including hostility and aggression. (We’ve all seen examples of narcissists pulling down others in order to stand above them.) However, one of the myths of narcissism is low self-esteem.

According to researchers, narcissism involves high, but unstable, self-esteem. So, when you appeal to their need to be admired with praise and respect, they feel more secure and open-minded. But as Grant suggests, what and how you make your appeal are critical.

“Don’t bury criticism between two compliments… narcissists are especially likely to ignore the criticism altogether,” advises Grant. Instead, offer praise for something unrelated to the topic.

For example, don’t pair a decision change request with a decision making skill compliment, rather, pair the request with genuine praise for other skills or attributes, like creativity or athleticism.

Another myth about narcissism is an inability to experience and demonstrate humility. However, narcissists can, and do. Draw on this understanding. When we feel more secure, selfishness and aggression are reduced, and we can become persuadable.  

Effective Persuasion is a Process

We are living with a great deal of uncertainty and change, and yet we expect people to act consistently from one situation to the next. The reality is that we respond to different scenarios with different personality traits and strengths.

Fortunately, even the most stubborn can be flexible, and the most disagreeable can be open-minded. Great managers and leaders pay attention to these instances. They notice when and how people change their minds. Grant describes this as “predictable if…then responses.”

Persuading the Stubborn

In the 1970’s, researchers surveyed college students on their locus of control—the degree to which they believe that outcomes can be subject to their will, from internal (choice and effort) to external (luck or fate) and their successes (and failures.) Predictably, those who scored higher on external control were more open to external persuasion, including light and forceful arguments. Those who scored higher on internal control were not persuaded by light argument, and moved in the opposite direction by forceful argument.

To harness this predictably, ask open-ended questions to spark creativity, such as “What if…?” This can plant a seed or generate new ideas. Then, take a cue from Improvisation, and “Yes, and.”

Persuading the Disagreeable

Disagreeableness, or argumentativeness, is common among the driven and competitive. They are energized by conflict, and enjoy a good fight. Smart leaders seek out the disagreeable to ensure they aren’t surrounded by “yes-people.”

However, if you need to persuade them, be prepared to battle. If you urge them to back down, they’ll double down. They want you to fight for your ideas and persuade them, often by refining your ideas with updated SWOT analysis, proofs of concept, and supporters.

A rapidly changing world requires a certain amount of thinking, and rethinking. This requires cognitive flexibility and effective persuasion; the mindsets, and skillsets.

Manage Burnout for Peak Performance

Peak performance is not what it used to be, according to leaders, managers, and employees who report teetering on the brink of burnout. And it’s not just individuals: entire organizations are at risk.

Within the first seven weeks of 2021, Harvard Business Review published six articles on the topic, including how the pandemic contributes to burnout, how to recognize burnout, and how to fight burnout. But instead, what if we could avoid burnout and maintain peak performance?

Although burnout is not classified as a medical condition or mental disorder (DSM-5), in 2019—pre-pandemic—the World Health Organization (WHO) re-defined the occupational phenomenon of burnout in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). According to the WHO, “burnout is a syndrome…resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” and includes three dimensions:

  • Feeling of energy depletion
  • Feeling of negativity/cynicism related to personal occupation or increasing mental distancing from occupation
  • Reduced professional/occupational efficacy

Typically, we avoid burnout by taking breaks: we enjoy several weeks of vacation, spend time away, and de-stress with a change of scenery and energizing activities. But for many, this has not been an option during the past year. Add to that virtual offices and work from home (WFH) practices, and stay-cations don’t recharge us like we need. Reaching and maintaining peak performance, for individuals and organizations, requires ongoing daily energy management.

Four Dimensions

Energy has four dimensions: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual (or ritual). We draw energy from each dimension, which we must replenish. To build our strength and expand our energy capacity (stamina/resilience) we must stretch ourselves beyond our usual limits and allow for rest. This cycle is referred to as stress and recovery.

Manage Your Physical Energy

We know that too much stress without recuperation can deplete our energy, and wreak havoc on our health. Left unchecked, our body’s natural cortisol response can actually weaken our immune system. Add to that overeating, and we block energy production.

To jump start your motivation and boost your physical energy:

  • Move your body. Even if it’s only a minute of stretching, jumping up and down, or a turn about a room, corridor, or neighborhood, it can generate good feelings and elevate your mood.
  • Identify SMART Stretch Goals. Your physical SMART goals can (and should) be related to activities and exercise, food and drink consumption, rest and relaxation, and wellness checkups with your medical care provider.
  • Create healthy habits and routines that support your goals. Making a decision and taking action depletes our mental and physical energy. To conserve precious brain energy, automate or eliminate decision-making.  

Physical Energy for Organizations

As a leader or manager, help your employees boost their physical energy:

  • Ensure work environments are safe.
  • Invest in building, equipment, and systems maintenance and needed upgrades.
  • Learn to recognize the warning signs of burnout, before it happens. Are your direct reports easily annoyed? Are they expressing impatience or discontent? Now is not the time to ignore it. Explore with empathy and curiosity.

Manage Your Mental Energy

Replenish your mental energy with frequent breaks from the actual thinking: complete an unrelated task, play a simple game, daydream, or meditate. Varying activities to stimulate different parts of your brain creates more mental energy. Studies also find a strong correlation between productivity and positive thinking. To boost mental energy, use these techniques:

  • Mental preparation: Willingness and optimism are key for mental toughness. Identify, control, and manage emotions. Be aware, and curious.
  • Visualization: See yourself succeed. Rehearse all the preparation and steps you will need to take to succeed. Visualize obstacles, and how you overcome them.
  • Meditation: Develop a practice of mindfulness or meditation. Begin with short sessions that focus on your breath, and grow your practice.
  • Introspection: What are you strengths? Where are your blind spots and bias? What is holding you back?
  • Reflection: Make time to feel feelings, process new experiences and information, and reflect on lessons learned. Ask for help when you need it.

Mental Energy for Organizations

If you aren’t already, consider providing spaces where employees can disengage for brief periods of time (5 – 60 minutes) to recharge their mental energy. To support a meditative atmosphere, create quiet zones with comfortable seating, floor cushions, and soft lighting. Discourage food and beverages, electronic devices, conversation, and other distractions.

Manage Your Emotional Energy

We know we are running critically low in our emotional energy when negative emotions become predominant. Fortunately, there are ways to manage negativity and build positive emotions:

  • Give yourself permission to play, even at work. Step-back, find the humor, and allow openness.
  • Phone a friend. Sometimes, picking up the phone can be the last thing we want to do, but it can be the most beneficial. If you haven’t already, hone this skill.
  • Find a way to be of service to someone else. When we spend too much time in our own heads it’s easy to lose perspective and forget that we’re not alone. Find a way to offer help or practice a random act of kindness.  

Emotional Energy for Organizations

  • Provide resources through which people can express anger, disappointment, helplessness, hopelessness, defeat, and depression.
  • Establish networks for executive peer support. Historically, these have been based on non-competing industries, but I wouldn’t rule them out entirely. When confidentiality is respected, such networks can foster coopetition. A qualified coach can also offer emotional support for executives, leaders, and managers.
  • Ensure you are recognizing and celebrating small victories at work. Frustration, anger, or fear are toxic and can block peak performance. Good feelings are contagious and can replenish our emotional energy.

Manage Your Spiritual Energy

Spiritual energy is your personal connection to your true values and deep sense of purpose. It relies on self-care and depends on taking care of others with profound respect. Spiritual energy draws upon rituals and a connection with a greater purpose.

Peak performance means deep involvement with purpose, values, self-examination, and the establishment of effective energy replenishing habits. There are three critical steps in this process:

  • Defining true values and what is most important to you, fostering a positive mind-set, and being unselfish.
  • Being honest about where you are now and recognizing, understanding, and overcoming obstacles, including excuses.
  • Developing a plan and taking action on three positive rituals that will replenish your spiritual energy level.

Spiritual Energy for Organizations

In organizations, spiritual energy is gained from the leadership vision, the mission of the organization, and how each and every action supports the mission. It is renewed when we remind each other that we matter.