“Persuading the Unpersuadable” by Adam Grant, Harvard Business Review Magazine (March–April 2021)
…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.
… 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…
Let a Stubborn Person Seize the Reins
A second obstacle to changing people’s opinions is stubbornness. Intractable people see consistency and certainty as virtues. Once made up, their minds seem to be set in stone. But their views become more pliable if you hand them a chisel…
A solution to this problem comes from a study of Hollywood screenwriters. Those who pitched fully formed concepts to executives right out of the gate struggled to get their ideas accepted. Successful screenwriters, by contrast, understood that Hollywood executives like to shape stories. Those writers treated the pitch more like a game of catch, tossing an idea over to the suits, who would build on it and throw it back…
Find the Right Way to Praise a Narcissist
A third hurdle in the way of changing minds is narcissism. Narcissistic leaders believe they’re superior and special, and they don’t take kindly to being told they’re wrong. But with careful framing, you can coax them toward acknowledging that they’re flawed and fallible.
It’s often said that bullies and narcissists have low self-esteem. But research paints a different picture: Narcissists actually have high but unstable self-esteem. They crave status and approval and become hostile when their fragile egos are threatened—when they’re insulted, rejected, or shamed. By appealing to their desire to be admired, you can counteract their knee-jerk tendency to reject a difference of opinion as criticism. Indeed, studies in both the United States and China have shown that narcissistic leaders are capable of demonstrating humility: They can believe they’re gifted while acknowledging their imperfections. To nudge them in that direction, affirm your respect for them.
In 1997, not long after returning to Apple as CEO, Jobs was discussing a new suite of technology at the company’s global developer conference. During the audience Q&A, one man harshly criticized the software and Jobs himself. “It’s sad and clear that on several counts you’ve discussed, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. (Ouch.)
You might assume that Jobs went on the attack, got defensive, or maybe even threw the man out of the room. Instead he showed humility: “One of the hardest things when you’re trying to effect change is that people like this gentleman are right in some areas,” he exclaimed, adding: “I readily admit there are many things in life that I don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about. So I apologize for that….We’ll find the mistakes; we’ll fix them.” The crowd erupted into applause.
How did the critic elicit such a calm reaction? He kicked his comments off with a compliment: “Mr. Jobs, you’re a bright and influential man.” As the audience laughed, Jobs replied, “Here it comes.”
As this story shows, a dash of acclaim can be a powerful antidote to a narcissist’s insecurity.