A leader's guide to winning hearts and minds

Great leaders don't browbeat, they persuade and inspire. Here's how.

by Natasha Abramson
Last Updated: 26 Sep 2019

Persuasion is an essential business skill. Effective leadership in particular means being able to win hearts and minds - to convince people to want to follow you.

Unlike influence, persuasion doesn't depend on status or authority: you cannot browbeat someone into agreeing with you. Instead, it's about getting on with people and enabling them to see the wisdom of your perspective. 

Start with the basics

The starting point for winning hearts and minds is therefore not what you say or how you say it, but the quality of your relationship, which itself depends on what you do. 

"Never shrink from a threat or challenge, act with integrity, keep your promises and speak on what you believe is right. Others will soon follow," says Sebastian Salicru, business psychologist and author of Leadership Results.

People will willingly go out their way for those who show "kindness, courtesy, compassion and good deposition," he says. 

Know what you want

Once you’ve built up a firm relationship, the next thing you need to do is make sure your message is unambiguous. Be clear about your objective: what exactly do you want to persuade them to do or think, and why? If you can't articulate this to yourself, you're unlikely to persuade anyone else, says Juliet Erickson, a communications specialist and author of The Art of Persuasion.

The more specific you can be, the better. Research supports that those who specify what they want are more likely to get it. 

It’s not all about you

When trying to win hearts and minds, it pays to consider your audience too. Tailor your message to the person you are talking to, so as to make them feel positive about what you are asking, says Philippa Davies, psychologist and author of Eureka! Making Brilliant Ideas Happen. "It's the extent to which you can inhabit the other person's world and see things from their perspective," she explains 

Ideas that people have thought of themselves tend to be more significant to them, so if you want them to buy into yours, make it theirs. Instead of blurting out how you’ve just had an amazing idea, say: "It was your perceptive comment last week that made me realise we need to do this...", advises Richard Templar, author of The Rules of People

If they have an objection, turn it around. When they say, "This isn’t the accepted way of doing things," you say, "I quite agree, it’s a really innovative approach. Good point."

"People are more likely to co-operate if they know they’ll be recognised and appreciated afterwards. So find ways to thank people in a way that makes them feel really great about themselves," says Templar.

Use a little psychology

Another tried-and-tested heart-and-mind-winning technique is to maximise loss aversion. Various psychological experiments have demonstrated that the prospect of losing what we already possess - whether that’s time, money, competitive advantage, reputation - is more likely to motivate people to act than the idea of gaining that very same thing in the first place. 

So when you're putting together your case, think about what the other person might be losing if they don't agree to your plan.

And when all else fails, there’s always the ‘so-called Salami Tactic’ - rather than putting forward your perhaps hard-to-swallow suggestion all in one go, serve it in smaller, digestible slices, just like a salami. 

This portioning method has two advantages: first, groups often reject ideas because they fear it is too huge a task – by slicing it, it will seem less bold; second, a measured presentation allows the other participants to explore the idea themselves and think it through further, making it more likely that they’ll contribute to the idea, thereby thinking of it as their own (see above). 

For more on the twin arts of persuasion and negotiation, read this print feature from Management Today, including the original Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort, a leading football agent, and the man who sold the Millennium Dome. 

Image credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images


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