Influencing People - 24 May 2011
So, the world was meant to end on the weekend. A similar prophecy was supposed to come true in the 1950s. On that occasion, believers of a doomsday cult resigned from their jobs, spent their savings, quit university, and left their families. They huddled up in a preacher’s room waiting for the stroke of midnight, the time all humans were to be obliterated. The only people to survive were to be the faithful who’d be transported elsewhere via alien spacecraft.
A psychologist from Stanford University infiltrated the group with his students. When midnight came and went without a hint of annihilation, the members of the cult were initially in shock. But after a few hours they began to reason with what had happened, or rather, what hadn’t happened. Instead of admitting they’d been fooled, many of them were convinced it was their strong faith that saved the planet. As a result, their belief became even stronger than before.
The researchers created a term to explain this absurd reaction: cognitive dissonance. This is a conflict that occurs when a belief is contradicted with new information. And, with many people, even though the new information logically disproves their belief, they’ll find reasons – no matter how outlandish – to justify holding on to it. For example, they might ignore the new information or discredit the messenger.
When trying to influence people at work, such as attempting to change someone’s behaviour, there’s a chance that cognitive dissonance will occur. It occurs because it is uncomfortable to be wrong. This discomfort leads some people to take on board the new information and make changes. Others, though, will take the approach of the doomsday cult. They’ll ignore you, discredit you, or come up with another reason to hold on to the status quo.
Here are five ways to influence people at work by minimising their cognitive dissonance.
- Build trust first: Take the time to form solid relationships. People are more easily persuaded if a mutual bond exists and if they see the influencer as being credible.
- Use their language: Clichés and jargon make you appear shady. Also, people want to know how your ideas will benefit them personally, rather than the company.
- Be authentic: Make sure your words match your actions, and listen to what people tell you because their comments often contain clues about their true motivators.
- Take small steps: It’s easier for people to make changes incrementally rather than in big strides. So, be realistic and sensitive with the timing of what you communicate.
- Create advocates: Employees trust their colleagues more than their bosses, so get popular people on board first. And remember the law of reciprocity; help others whenever you can, because they might someday return the favour as advocates.
Cognitive dissonance is a major barrier to influencing people in the workplace. Get people to overcome it, and they won’t feel as if it’s the end of the world.
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