How to Change People's Minds

Take a lesson (or seven) from Howard Gardner, author of Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds

Many security executives have yet to master the power of persuasion. Take a lesson (or seven) from Howard Gardner, author of Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds (Harvard Business School Press, 2004). Gardner's first step toward changing a person's mind is no surprise: Know thine audience. The tactics you use to influence a board of directors should be different than those you use to persuade a large group of employees. Age is another factor to consider. "As you age, the neural networks become like a road that has been driven down over and over again. There are deep ruts," Gardner says. Beliefs also become deeply ingrained and reinforced over time; the longer people believe something, the better they get at deflecting counterarguments. A CEO who has always thought security should operate unobtrusively, behind the scenes, will be harder to sell on the need for a new high-profile badging and access control system than a group of younger and newer employees.

Gardner has identified seven factors—he calls them levers—that are effective in influencing a person to change his mind:

1. Rational reasoning: Logically outline the pros and cons of a decision.

2. Research: Present data and relevant cases to support the argument.

3. Resonance: Use your likeability and emotional appeal to win support for your view.

4. Representational redescription: Make your point in many different ways. Use humor, stories, pictures; act out a scenario.

5. Resources and rewards: Use rewards or punishment as incentives to convince someone to adopt your view.

6. Real world events: Use events from society at large to make your point (for instance, the most recent high-profile CEO laptop theft).

7. Resistances: Understand the factors that cause people to reject your view. Such insights can make it easier for you to change their minds.

Understanding resistance and why it exists is particularly important. For example, a little reconnaissance might reveal that employees object to the company's new badging system because they dislike the inconvenience of having to wait at the security checkpoint every morning. Instead of focusing on the intrinsic goodness of the new system, CSOs would be more persuasive by addressing that annoyance directly. Acknowledge that it will take employees an average of three to five minutes longer to get to their desks in the morning. But also point out the benefits: that since the system's launch there hasn't been a single crime in the building, and that the checkpoint detected two people who didn't belong in the building, one of whom was carrying a weapon. Those are powerful counterarguments to a little inconvenience.

Some levers will work better than others in a corporate environment. A CSO who relies strictly on his charm to "resonate" with his audience may not get very far. But the use of stories (representational redescription) can be very effective. Just be sure that the stories you communicate are inclusive rather than built around scare tactics. "Try to incorporate everyone in the same narrative and convince people that we are in this together," says Gardner. He notes that community policing is successful because people in the neighborhood see the cops trying to achieve the same goal they area safe neighborhood. Inclusiveness goes even further if you can get other people within the corporate "neighborhood" to tell some of the stories and evangelize for you. "As a CSO, I would feel better if the CIO and CEO were singing the same song as well. That way it's more of a choir, less of a solo," Gardner says.

The biggest challenge CSOs are likely to run up against is fundamentalism—not in the religious sense, but in the form of a conscious decision made by a person not to change his mind. When you encounter people whose opinions are so fixed and unwavering, Gardner advises security executives not to waste their time trying to change them. Gardner notes that he has had a long string of assistants who would leave their desk drawers open despite his frequent warnings about pocketbook safety. "Every now and then I would steal their wallets just to show them," he says, "but eventually I got too old." Plus, he says, it never worked anyway.

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