The Persuasion Imperative

There may have been a time when a boss gave orders and subordinates followed them. If you’ve watched the AMC series “Mad Men”—based on Madison Avenue marketing executives in the 1960s—you’ve seen an image of deference to authority, respectful obedience to those higher up in the hierarchy, and a paternalistic relationship between boss and employee.

With time comes change. Organizations are no longer male dominated as they were in the 1950s. Laws and policies are in place that better protect employees against the sometimes-capricious whims of supervisors.

Another sign of shifting cultural values is the way managers use their power. Commandments are out. Persuasion is in.

When IBM manager Kate Riley Tenant needed to reassign managers and engineers to form a database software team, she had to persuade IBM employees from all corners of the globe, none of whom directly reported to her. According to Tenant, it’s a big change from when she started in the field 20 years ago. “You just decided things, and people went off and executed,” she said. Now, “not everybody reports to you, and so there’s much more negotiation and influence.”

John Churchill, a manager with Florida-based Gerdau Ameristeel Corporation, agrees. The question now, he says, is “How do I influence this group and gain credibility?”

At IBM, the challenge of persuading employees across reporting relationships has become so significant that the firm developed a 2-hour online course to help managers persuade other employees to help with projects crucial to its business. IBM’s tips for managers include the following:

  • Build a shared vision
  • Negotiate collaboratively
  • Make trade-offs
  • Build and maintain your network

Despite meeting initial resistance, after completing the training program, Tenant was able to persuade most IBM managers and engineers to join the team.

This doesn’t mean authority has lost all its power. Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist who has studied persuasion for decades, lists authority as one of his keys to influence. Even more important may be the so-called “bandwagon effect” (or what Cialdini called “social proof”)—Cialdini and others have found that people are often deeply persuaded by observing what others are doing. From his research, no message more effectively got hotel guests to reuse their towels than citing statistics that others were reusing their towels.

So, if you’re a manager who needs to persuade, present the vision behind the request and be collaborative, but it also wouldn’t hurt to tell those you’re trying to persuade about others who have already agreed to your request.

Based on the above reading and the knowledge gained from your assigned readings, respond to the following questions:

  • Are the precepts of the IBM training program consistent with your reading this week? Why or why not?
  • Are there other keys to persuasion and influence that might be added to the IBM program?
  • If you had a manager who wanted you to do something against your initial inclination, which of IBM’s elements would work best on you? Why?
  • Do you think generational values explain the changing nature of the employer–employee relationship? You should base your response upon what you learned in Week 1 about values.