Leadership is about many things, some of them quite lofty: setting strategic direction, creating a shared sense of purpose, modeling behaviors you hope to see in others. But effective leadership often comes down to something more mundane: getting people to do things they’d rather not do. Maybe it comes back to the office three days a week after working remotely for so long. You may be reinventing performance ratings or launching a new product that disrupts an old favorite. If the work of leadership is the work of change, then overcoming the natural tendency to resist change should be at the top of every leader’s agenda.
More than 150 years ago, Herman Melville created one of the most unforgettable (and annoying) corporate characters in American literature. Melville’s short story introduced readers to Bartleby the Scrivener, a lowly employee at a Wall Street law firm who, when asked to perform even the most basic task, or make the slightest change in his routine, would reply: “I prefer not.” I’m not suggesting that your colleagues are modern versions of Bartleby, but when it comes to onboard new ways of working, selling or innovating, the hard truth is that many people would rather not.
So how do leaders convince people to do things they’d rather not do? Social scientists have been wrestling with this question for decades. They devised numerous experiments that helped them identify two very different persuasive techniques. Either of these techniques can work in the right situation, although neither translates perfectly from the ivory tower world of social science research to the messy realities of organizational life. But both techniques can help leaders reflect on the hard work of making big changes, and on what it takes to move beyond what management theorists like to call “active inertia”—the tendency for people and organizations to seek solace in the old ways of doing things, even (or especially) when the world changes drastically around them.
The “Foot-in-the-door” technique
One answer, referred to by psychologists as the “foot in the door” technique, is that the best way to get people to change something big, or do something difficult, is to first ask them to change something small or do something simple. to do. † By agreeing to and then complying with the request, people develop a sense of commitment and trust that makes them more eager to agree to the next (larger) request. In other words, the path to big change is paved with many small steps and small bets – each building on what came before it.
In their seminal article on the foot-in-the-door technique, Stanford professors Jonathan L. Freedman and Scott C. Fraser noted that in most societies and organizations “it is somewhat difficult to refuse a reasonable request.” So starting small makes it hard for people to say no. But then, “once someone has agreed to take action, no matter how small,” they “tend to feel more involved” in the situation, and thus are more likely to agree to even bigger actions. The virtue of this technique is that it leads to “compliance without pressure” – people are invited to do something new rather than forced to do it. The logic is, in the spirit of that famous saying, if you coax people to move an inch, they can end up moving a mile.
I’ve seen the foot-in-the-door technique work well, even when leaders who adopted the approach never used the actual term. Think of the rise of Megabus, a leading player in a tradition-bound industry, which amounts to a business case study of the persuasiveness of getting a foot in the door. Today, Megabus looks like a textbook disruptor: a sleek, colorful, widely recognized company that transports students, young professionals and weekend tourists between city centers across the country. As a company and brand, it is a pioneering performer, with all the hallmarks of a blank start-up.
But Megabus was launched in one of the largest transportation conglomerates in the world, a 40-year-old outfit based in Scotland, by corporate veterans who would never be confused with Silicon Valley in their twenties. Megabus leaders were able to make such sweeping changes because they persuaded their colleagues to consider and implement a series of small changes: What if we used a new kind of bus? What if we eliminated stops on our routes and only made express connections? What if these routes connected smaller cities that were close together, rather than large cities that were far apart? What if we tried a paperless ticketing system?
Each of these small changes had many doubters. But when people saw that they were working, there was a hunger for more. As the CEO of Megabus USA told me, “This was a test, an initiative, a small guess as to where travel might go. There was no guru who said: this is the future of bus travel.” Or, as one of the technologists behind the launch told me, Megabus started out “as a little experiment” that grew into “an important part” of the Stagecoach company.
By asking a series of small what-if questions and asking colleagues to take a series of modest steps, Megabus leaders got a foot in the door that blew the company’s doors wide.
The “Door-in-the-Face” technique
There is a second answer to the question of how to get people to do things they would rather not do. That is, they insist that they do something even bigger and more dramatic than what you actually have in mind, and when they refuse or resist, your real goals seem tame by comparison. Psychologists call this the “door-in-the-face” technique. In another landmark paper, researchers asked, “What would be the result of making an extreme first request that is sure to be rejected and then a more moderate second” request? The answer, it turns out, is that people are much more likely to agree to the second request.
When it comes to organizational life, the door-in-the-face approach is as much a metaphor as it is a literal persuasion technique. The lesson about leadership isn’t that you should routinely make demands that you know people can’t or won’t accept, or that it’s acceptable to try to bluff your coworkers with false goals to achieve the goals you really have in mind. . Rather, the idea is that by setting aspirations for performance and change that seem extreme or unreasonable, especially in organizations suffering from active sluggishness, you can persuade people to consider innovations they would not otherwise have considered. Wharton professor Jerry Wind calls this “the power of impossible thinking” — and it can make big change much more possible.
As I thought of individual leaders mastering the door-in-the-face approach, I thought back to the brilliant performance of Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, and by most accounts the greatest football coach. all time. When Lombardi arrived at Green Bay, the team had gone through the most miserable season in its history. In a short space of time, he led the Packers to three consecutive and five total NFL championships. One of the reasons Lombardi was so successful was that he was so unreasonable in terms of his expectations for performance and improvement by his players. He insisted that every block had to be flawless, every shift had to be seamless, every cut had to be timed perfectly, for every play his team played.
When asked why he set such impossible standards, even though those standards invariably provoked resistance and backlash, Lombardi replied: “Perfection is not attainable. But if we pursue perfection, we can capture excellence.” This style of thinking through-the-face, pushing for goals even he knew his players couldn’t achieve, allowed Lombardi to convince them to reach levels of performance they wouldn’t otherwise have achieved.
As a leader responsible for the hard work of big change, should you embrace the logic and lessons of the foot-in-the-door technique or the door-in-the-face technique? It all depends on your personal style, the types of challenges your organization faces, the culture you’ve built and the people you’ve hired. Ultimately, there is no one right way to lead change and unleash exceptional performance. But there is one universal challenge: convincing people to do things they would rather not do. Just ask Bartleby the Scrivener.
This post Convince your team to embrace change was original published at “https://hbr.org/2022/04/persuading-your-team-to-embrace-change”