We live in an age of polarization, says HBR. Many of us may be asking ourselves how, when people disagree with or discount us, we can persuade them to rethink their positions.
The legend of Steve Jobs is that he transformed our lives with the strength of his convictions. The key to his greatness, the story goes, was his ability to bend the world to his vision. The reality is that much of Apple’s success came from his team’s pushing him to rethink his positions. If Jobs hadn’t surrounded himself with people who knew how to change his mind, he might not have changed the world.
For years Jobs insisted he would never make a phone. After his team finally persuaded him to reconsider, he banned outside apps; it took another year to get him to reverse that stance. Within nine months the App Store had a billion downloads, and a decade later the iPhone had generated more than $1 trillion in revenue.
Almost every leader has studied the genius of Jobs, but surprisingly few have studied the genius of those who managed to influence him. As an organizational psychologist, I’ve spent time with a number of people who succeeded in motivating him to think again, and I’ve analyzed the science behind their techniques. The bad news is that plenty of leaders are so sure of themselves that they reject worthy opinions and ideas from others and refuse to abandon their own bad ones. The good news is that it is possible to get even the most overconfident, stubborn, narcissistic, and disagreeable people to open their minds.
A growing body of evidence shows that personality traits aren’t necessarily consistent from one situation to the next. Think of the dominant manager who is occasionally submissive, the hypercompetitive colleague who sporadically becomes cooperative, or the chronic procrastinator who finishes some projects early. Every leader has an if…then profile: a pattern of responding to particular scenarios in certain ways. If the dominant manager is interacting with a superior…then she becomes submissive. If the competitive colleague is dealing with an important client…then he shifts into cooperative mode. If the procrastinator has a crucial deadline coming up…then she gets her act together.
Computer code is a string of if…then commands. Humans are a lot messier, but we too have predictable if…then responses. Even the most rigid people flex at times, and even the most open-minded have moments when they shut down. So if you want to reason with people who seem unreasonable, pay attention to instances when they—or others like them—change their minds. Here are some approaches that can help you encourage a know-it-all to recognize when there’s something to be learned, a stubborn colleague to make a U-turn, a narcissist to show humility, and a disagreeable boss to agree with you.
Ask a Know-It-All to Explain How Things Work
The first barrier to changing someone’s view is arrogance. We’ve all encountered leaders who are overconfident: They don’t know what they don’t know. If you call out their ignorance directly, they may get defensive. A better approach is to let them recognize the gaps in their own understanding.
In a series of experiments, psychologists asked Yale students to rate their knowledge of how everyday objects, such as televisions and toilets, work. The students were supremely confident in their knowledge—until they were asked to write out their explanations step-by-step. As they struggled to articulate how a TV transmits a picture and a toilet flushes, their overconfidence melted away. They suddenly realized how little they understood.
Trying to explain something complex can be a humbling experience—even for someone like Steve Jobs.
A few years ago I met Wendell Weeks, the CEO of Corning, which makes the glass for the iPhone. That relationship began when Jobs reached out to him, frustrated that the plastic face of the iPhone prototype kept getting scratched. Jobs wanted strong glass to cover the display, but his team at Apple had sampled some of Corning’s glass and found it too fragile. Weeks explained that he could think of three ways to develop something better. “I don’t know that I’d make the glass for you,” he told Jobs, “but I’d be very happy to talk with any members of your team who are technical enough to talk this thing through.” Jobs responded, “I’m technical enough!”
When Weeks flew out to Cupertino, Jobs tried to tell him how to make the glass. Instead of arguing, Weeks let him explain the way his preferred method would work. As Jobs started talking, it became clear to both of them that he didn’t fully understand how to design glass that wouldn’t shatter. That was the opening Weeks needed. He walked to a whiteboard and said, “Let me teach you some science, and then we can have a great conversation.” Jobs agreed, and Weeks eventually sketched out the glass composition, complete with molecules and sodium and potassium ion exchanges. They ended up doing it Weeks’s way. The day the iPhone launched, Weeks received a message from Jobs that’s now framed in his office: “We couldn’t have done it without you.”
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About the author: Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist at Wharton and the author of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (Viking, 2021).