How do you change someone’s mind?

​I believe there’s quite a bit of truth to the idea that we each invent our reality.

Within the context of this reality our decisions are right, and we will almost certainly reject anything or anyone who tells us we’re wrong.

In fact, how can we be sure that what works well for others, would work equally well for ourselves?
But what happens when changing others defines how successful we are?

Many of us have faced this either as a new employee with new ideas or as a change agent expected to lead transformation. Eventually, new employees with new ideas quickly become “experienced” employees who know better. For the latter, life can be frustrating as resistance to change takes its toll.​

In his excellent translation of Sun Tzu’s — The Art of Strategy, author R.L. Wing talks about the basis for a remedy, namely the concept of “Tao”:

“Tao is a very difficult word to translate, but it can be paraphrased as ‘The smooth way that things tend to operate in nature.’ When events are manipulated, they are not Tao, and outcomes are dangerously uncontrolled. To have the Tao at work in a situation or a strategy is considered the greatest of advantages, since the operation becomes effortless and the results predictable. It is as though all the forces of nature are working toward one’s own objective”.



The Art of War vs The Art of Strategy
Commonly referred to as The Art of War, Sun Tzu’s original text uses the Chinese ideogram “Bing”. Bing has several translations in English, including: war, soldier, military, tactic, combat and so on. However, it’s most common translation is “Strategy”.


Tao is often linked to nature; weather, laws of physics, and time. Fighting against these forces wastes energy and results in poor outcomes, whereas approaches that align with “The Tao” are more likely to succeed. This principle can be extended to consider human behaviour or “human nature” as something we can either try to harness or choose to fight against.

Some time back I read an interesting example of this in “Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard” (Chip and Dan Heath), in which Jon Stegner, a senior manager at John Deere, needed to convince executives that millions of dollars could be saved if they invested in centralizing their purchasing. But there were three issues:

  1. As things stood, Deere’s divisions were responsible for buying what they needed and they wouldn’t want to lose this flexibility
  2. A company-wide process change like this would be a lot of work
  3. It would be complicated to explain just how bad things were

Jon realized that often, in situations like this, our first instinct is to want to assume the problem isn’t really that big so we can avoid the unnecessary work of solving it. He needed to come up with a way to counter this part of our nature.

Jon decided to work with an assistant to collect the different workman gloves the company bought from 422 different vendors around the world. All of the gloves were tagged with a price and eventually a wheel barrow was used to cart them into a boardroom for a meeting with the executives.

When the executives walked in the first thing they saw was a huge pile of gloves stacked up on the boardroom table. It was a shocking graphic display of a problem that went beyond gloves to all of the different things this company bought around the globe.

Jon essentially used human nature, which is to solve important problems we can see, to counter the part of our nature that wants to avoid unnecessary work by assuming everything is basically ok.

This technique doesn’t need to be applied in such a dramatic way. One approach I’ve seen used in the past is to subdue resistance by proposing a “Pilot Initiative” — the change would be temporary and only target a small audience. That part of our nature that worries about effort related to a big changes that might fail, is often intrigued by the potential advantage of a cheap experiment that might make our lives easier or save us money.

You can see broader examples of this approach working in history and politics; Martin Luther King Jr, tapped into a human need for freedom and justice, and many of us saw the more recent example used during the recent US general election.

Recognizing opportunities to utilize the Tao may not be intuitive, it’s certainly easier to approach things directly, however, this can go against the grain of what is core to human nature — the need for our world view to be right.

I hope this post gives you some food for thought on where this may apply in your own lives.

If there are any examples like this that you’ve come across in your day-to-day, or maybe you’ve personally used this kind of approach before, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you.

4 comments

  1. I have had first hand experience of this. In order to streamline the process for checking the integrity of data that was being uploaded to a system that tracked the life of components fitted to aircraft, the data entry form had to be made more user friendly with less reliance on reading the “instruction manual”. This made the form twice the length of the original. Resistance was instant and many employees raised concerns that more work was being created. So, instead of rolling the new form out permanently, I decided to have a limited roll out with a random selection of employees as a 2 week trial. Once they’d got used to it, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and the individuals became the best advocates of the new procedure amongst their peers. Their endorsement of the new form was far more effective than any presentation that management could deliver. We have now progressed to full roll out and there have not been any push back.

    1. Was thinking about this this morning and was going to ask whether you hand selected some key people to be in the trial, but sounds like it was purely random. Looking at Mary Ann’s comment above, just wondering how you’re approaching the roll out? (leading people through the change)

  2. Just like ‘gloves’ on the table, being “brutally” frank to make others recognize the need for change is a good technique for getting someone to change their mind. Through the years, we’ve layered on politeness, discretion, etiquette, diversity and more to honest truth making it difficult for others to see what changes are needed. Also, many leaders cannot seem to take it upon themselves to just be frank and honest. In my opinion, the toughest part is not making someone change their mind. The toughest part is taking someone through the journey once they have changed their mind… /MA

    1. This really hits home, often it can be tough to find that balance between diplomacy, honesty and frankness, and it’s refreshing to get the “honest” perspective.

      I imagine you probably spend some time observing the environment first before sharing your thoughts on what’s needed. How do you approach that?

      And what has your experience been on leading people through change – what are some of the pitfalls you try to avoid?

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