Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How to Persuade The Unpersuaded. Persuasion skills to create alignment and execute for results.

“People do not lack strength; they lack will.”

Persuasion is a leader’s stock in trade. Sometimes the odds are stacked against the argument, and so more than persuasion is needed.

There comes a time in every leader’s career when he or she is faced with seemingly intractable obstacles. Not in terms of deficiencies in resources or competitive pressures, but in terms of people in the organization. Often, it comes in the form of a coalition of people who do not like or trust the leader. Sometimes this lack of trust is due to lack of knowledge. Or it may be based on lack of faith; they do not think the leader is up to the job. The way the leader handles the situation will determine success or failure as a leader. When facing such situations, the leader must defuse the forces against him or her and then bring people together. Persuasion becomes the rule of the day.

There are some things you can do to persuading the unpersuaded:

Do your homework. Disagreements arise for all sorts of reasons: personality conflicts, organizational politics, and simple ignorance of the issues. The leader must find out what people are against and why they are against it, especially if the people are against your ideas. For example, if the leader is pushing for a change, people may naturally push back because change brings discomfort. If change brings pain, that is, people feel loss of control, influence, or security, the issue is more serious. It is up to the leader to find out the root cause of the discomfort.

Listen to the opposition. It is up to the leader to give people a voice. Allowing them to explain their point of view as well as their resistance to the idea is critical. Many leaders make the mistake of ignoring this step, thinking they know the issues. Perhaps they do, but allowing people to voice their opposition is critical. It is not simply a matter of venting; it is an acknowledgment of real opposition. Listening also involves asking questions and finding out why people feel the way they do. That step is critical to understanding and then building for the future.

Find common ground. What holds people together is their shared belief in a common cause. Disagreements often arise among peer-based organizations where there is no centralized hierarchy; examples include professional service firms, universities, and even volunteer organizations. Disagreements can be fatal; they can fester and cause ruination. So it is up to the leader to bring people together to find a point or points of agreement. Often, this will get down to the mission of the organization. For example, volunteers may coalesce around the concept of service to the disadvantaged, or physicians may come together on principles of patient care. Finding that common ground is essential. It can take time to uncover and agree on, but if the organization is to survive, people must agree.

Turn your opposition’s strength into his weakness. Sun-Tzu, the legendary general of ancient China, was a master at observing his enemy and discovering strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes you attack where an opponent is vulnerable, but other times you attack where the opponent is strongest. For example, in battle, you use an enemy’s size to his disadvantage. Avoid frontal assaults; attack from the side. Draw him into low, open ground and attack from above. It catches the enemy off-guard, and it can expose real weaknesses. Such maneuvering is vital when arguing the leader’s point of view.
For example, expose the opposition for what it is—a faction. Position the leader as representative and protector of the whole organization. By staking such high ground, the speaker positions herself as the keeper and protector of the whole organization.

Demonstrate inclusiveness. There must be respect for the past and the value of the institution. Use language that reinforces team; avoid “us vs. them” characterizations. Strive to use “we” when possible. However, use “I” and “me” when demonstrating personal accountability. Good leaders often acknowledge their own shortcomings and ask for support of others. Make it clear that alternate points of view are welcome. However, the person in charge must lead; you must work with others and enable them to succeed. But it is your job to set direction and to enforce discipline. Failure to do so gives the opposition leverage to do whatever it likes. Organizational values, coupled with common ground, can be used to reinforce the leader’s authority and ensure that things move forward.

Give people a stake in the outcome. None of us enjoy being dictated to. Yet things happen beyond our control, especially in large organizations that we must accept. That said, the leader can sometimes intervene to make the reality more palatable. How? It is now that the leader can make adjustments when possible to give people greater voice in shaping the change and having more influence over the outcome. This gives people ownership of their destiny. Make it clear that support of the team is essential to moving forward.

Reaching out to the opposition to persuade them of your point of view is essential, but often it does not work. People do remain unpersuaded. The leader has two choices. One, allow the situation to remain as is, understanding that the coalition against your leadership will only gain in strength. Two, act decisively. Give the opposition an ultimatum. Either they are with you or against you. Those who decide to stay, stay. Those who disagree will leave. Forcing an ultimatum will demonstrate the leader’s resolve to move forward. It also will motivate the undecided to follow the lead, or leave.

For example, if people are resisting change because they feel a loss of authority, you demonstrate that without change, they will have no authority whatsoever. Only by going along with your leadership will they retain position and power. This is not simply a matter of strong-arming the opposition; it is pointing out reality. Yes, people will be cowed by the fear of losing jobs, but you will preempt this sentiment to a degree by demonstrating a willingness to listen and learn from them.

Persuasion skills are vital to a leader’s ability to create alignment and execute for results. Bringing people together for common cause is essential, but it often requires leaders to deal with the naysayers first. The leader’s authority depends on defusing opposition as a means of moving forward. How the leader does it is a testament to her ability to read the situation and do what is best for the organization.



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