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This article was first published in the October 2017 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Getting things done in the workplace often involves persuading people to do what we would like them to do. The reality, however, is that even quite intelligent individuals often fail to do so effectively.

In a classic psychology experiment, Harvard University’s Ellen Langer and her colleagues hired two research assistants to wait near a photocopier in a library. When a member of the public approached the photocopier, one of the assistants rushed forward to ask to use the photocopier first, using one of two scripts.

On some occasions, the research assistant asked: ‘Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?’ When asked this somewhat brusque question, 60% of the members of the public allowed the assistant to use the copying machine first.

On other occasions, the research assistant added a short explanation: ‘Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?’ In these instances, 93% of the members of the public allowed the research assistant to use the copier first.

Note that that second request is somewhat tautological. Giving the explanation ‘because I have to make copies’ doesn’t make much sense – of course the copying machine will be used to make copies. However, the addition of the word ‘because’ still boosted the request’s persuasiveness.

This is a useful reminder that we must take time to explain the reasoning behind our requests. We may assume – especially when we are busy – that the rationale for a request is obvious. However, multiple surveys show that many employees, and even fairly senior managers, often do not properly comprehend the overarching goals of the team or wider organisation. It’s easy to forget that other people do not have access to all of the information that we have – they are not telepathic.

However, simply explaining the thinking behind what we want people to do is not always enough. In particular, when asking colleagues to engage in or support major projects or changes that are not entirely to their liking, the ethical approach must surely be to take additional time to seek their thoughts and feelings on what we are proposing.

This requires more effort on our part than simply giving people time to express their concerns and objections. Even if we can only change minimally the details of a proposal or initiative, we at least have a moral obligation to demonstrate that we have heard what they are saying.

Researchers such as MIT investigators Emile Bruneau and Rebecca Saxe call this process ‘perspective-giving’ – allowing people to express their opinions but also ensuring that they feel they have been properly heard. In practice, this means taking extra time to paraphrase what our colleagues have said using phrases such as ‘I hear you are concerned that…’ and ‘I understand that you feel…’

Consider also that people – colleagues, clients or even financially savvy investors or shareholders – are rarely completely rational. A perfectly well-reasoned and logical argument can still fail to win people over. Think of all the things people know that they should do in life yet fail to do – eat more vegetables, and avoid sugary foods, for example.

People are often swayed more by irrational desires and their feelings than by facts – by their hearts as much as their heads. Political scientist Costas Panagopoulos has shown that people who were induced to feel either the positive emotion of pride or the negative emotion of shame were more likely to take action than those who felt merely indifferent.

Sometimes negative emotions such as sadness or fear may provoke people to take action; at other times, positive emotions such as hope or joy may be more appropriate. There is no formula that can tell us the right emotion to use for best effect when trying to influence or persuade others. The larger point is merely this: rely only on facts and logical arguments and you will likely hamper your chances of winning people over.

Of course, having the means to change people’s minds does not mean that it is always ethical to do so. Heavy-handed influence and persuasion could be viewed by others as manoeuvring or manipulation. Might is not always right – and deciding whether to influence others is a choice you may need to consider very carefully indeed. 

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace: