The Power of Persuasion and Cognitive Flexibility

  • 6 mins read

“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 incredible people with an amazing depth of wisdom. They rely on their knowledge, skills, experience, and intuition, which 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 say, unwise ideas.

When asked what led up to this, some will point to blind spots or hidden bias. But others confess to simple overconfidence: they wouldn’t listen to others and hold 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 great leaders have the wisdom and courage to question their convictions?

They do this with three key tactics:

  1. Accept that everyone has limits, including you.
  2. Surround yourself with diverse experts and empower them to persuade you ethically and courageously.
  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 Add to that how facts quickly change through new data, discoveries, or perspectives, and what was once right may be outdated.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 our vision, strategy, and 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 into 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 biases that prevent them from changing their minds about a strongly held conviction. This stems, in part, from how our brains categorize new information to 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 we might be wrong rather than 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, humility can be a real lesson. 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, they feel more secure and open-minded when you appeal to their need to be admired with praise and respect. However, 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 live with a great deal of uncertainty and change, 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 ifthen responses.”

Persuading the Stubborn

In the 1970s, researchers surveyed college students on the locus of 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 some thinking and rethinking. This requires cognitive flexibility and effective persuasion, mindsets, and skillsets.

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