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Persuading the Unpersuadable

Lessons offered by science—and the people who were able to influence Steve Jobs—about how to change the mind of a strong leader.

By  Por Adam Grant*
© 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.
From HBR.org Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
Photos: Shutterstock

 

The legend of Steve Jobs is that he transformed our lives with the strength of his convictions. The key to his greatness, the story goes, was his ability to bend the world to his vision. The reality is that much of Apple’s success came from his team pushing him to rethink his positions. If Jobs hadn’t surrounded himself with people who knew how to change his mind, he might not have changed the world.

For years Jobs insisted he would never make a phone. After his team finally persuaded him to reconsider, he banned outside apps; it took another year to get him to reverse that stance. Within nine months the App Store had a billion downloads, and a decade later the iPhone had generated more than $1 trillion in revenue.

Almost every leader has studied the genius of Jobs, but surprisingly few have studied the genius of those who managed to influence him. As an organizational psychologist, I’ve spent time with a number of people who succeeded in motivating Jobs to think again, and I’ve analyzed the science behind their techniques. The bad news is that plenty of leaders are so sure of themselves that they reject worthy opinions and ideas from others and refuse to abandon their own bad ideas. The good news is that it is possible to get even the most overconfident, stubborn, narcissistic, and disagreeable people to open their minds.

Ask a Know-It-All to Explain How Things Work

The first barrier to changing someone’s view is arrogance. We’ve all encountered leaders who are overconfident: they don’t know what they don’t know. If you call out their ignorance directly, they may get defensive. A better approach is to let them recognize the gaps in their own understanding.

Psychologists asked Yale students to rate their knowledge of how everyday objects, such as televisions and toilets, work. The students were supremely confident in their knowledge—until they were asked to write out their explanations step-by-step. As they struggled to articulate how a TV transmits a picture and a toilet flushes, their overconfidence melted away. 

A few years ago I met Wendell Weeks, the CEO of Corning, the company that makes the glass for the iPhone. Jobs wanted strong glass to cover the display, but his team at Apple had sampled some of Corning’s glass and found it too fragile. “I don’t know that I’d make the glass for you,” he told Jobs, “but I’d be very happy to talk with any members of your team who are technical enough to talk this thing through.” Jobs responded, “I’m technical enough!”

Instead of arguing, Weeks let him explain the way his preferred method would work. As Jobs started talking, it became clear to both of them that he didn’t fully understand how to design glass that wouldn’t shatter. That was the opening Weeks needed. He said, “Let me teach you some science, and then we can have a great conversation.” The day the iPhone launched, Weeks received a message from Jobs that’s now framed in his office: “We couldn’t have done it without you.”

Let a Stubborn Person Seize the Reins

A second obstacle to changing people’s opinions is stubbornness. Intractable people see consistency and certainty as virtues. Once made up, their minds seem to be set in stone. But their views become more pliable if you hand them a chisel.

In the late 1990s, Apple engineer Mike Bell was listening to music on his Mac computer and getting annoyed at the thought of lugging the device with him from room to room. When he suggested building a separate box to stream audio, Jobs laughed at him. When Bell recommended adding streaming video too, Jobs fired back, “Who the f— would ever want to stream video?”

Bell told me that when evaluating other people’s ideas, Jobs often pushed back to assert control. But when Jobs was the one generating ideas, he was more open to considering alternatives. Bell learned to plant the seeds of a new concept, hoping that Jobs would warm to it and give it some sunlight.

Research shows that asking questions instead of giving answers can overcome people’s defensiveness. You’re not telling your boss what to think or do; you’re giving her some control over the conversation and inviting her to share her thoughts. Questions like “What if?” and “Could we?” spark creativity by making people curious about what’s possible.

One day Bell casually mentioned that since no one would have a Mac in every room, streaming on other devices was going to be a big deal. Then, instead of pressing his argument, he asked, “What if we built a box that would let you play content?” Jobs was still skeptical, but as he imagined the possibilities, he started to take some ownership of the idea and eventually gave Bell the green light. “I knew I’d succeeded when he was arguing my point and proposing the project I’d pitched him,” Bell recalls. “By the end he was telling people to get out of my way.” That project helped pave the way for Apple TV.

Find the Right Way to Praise a Narcissist

A third hurdle to changing minds is narcissism. Narcissistic leaders believe they’re superior and special, and they don’t take kindly to being told they’re wrong. But with careful framing, you can coax them toward acknowledging that they’re flawed and fallible.

Narcissists actually have high but unstable self-esteem. They crave status and approval and become hostile when their fragile egos are threatened— when they’re insulted, rejected or shamed. By appealing to their desire to be admired, you can counteract their knee-jerk tendency to reject a difference of opinion as criticism. Studies have shown that narcissistic leaders are capable of demonstrating humility; they can believe they’re gifted while acknowledging their imperfections. To nudge them in that direction, affirm your respect for them.

In 1997, not long after returning to Apple as CEO, Jobs was discussing a new suite of technology at the company’s global developer conference. During the audience Q&A, one man harshly criticized the software and Jobs himself. “It’s sad and clear that on several counts you’ve discussed, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. (Ouch.)

 

You might assume that Jobs went on the attack, got defensive, or maybe even threw the man out of the room. Instead he showed humility: “One of the hardest things when you’re trying to effect change is that people like this gentleman are right in some areas,” he exclaimed, adding, “I readily admit there are many things in life that I don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about. So I apologize for that …. We’ll find the mistakes; we’ll fix them.” The crowd erupted into applause.

How did the critic elicit such a calm reaction? He kicked his comments off with a compliment: “Mr. Jobs, you’re a bright and influential man.” A dash of acclaim can be a powerful antidote to a narcissist’s insecurity. Not all displays of respect are equally effective, though. It doesn’t help to bury criticism between two compliments: The feedback sandwich doesn’t taste as good as it looks. Beginnings and ends are more likely to stick in our memories than middles, and narcissists are especially likely to ignore the criticism altogether.

The key is to praise people in an area different from the one in which you hope to change their minds. If you’re trying to get a narcissistic leader to rethink a bad choice, it’s a mistake to say you admire her decision-making skills; you’re better off commending her creativity. We all have multiple identities, and when we feel secure about one of our strengths, we become more open to accepting our shortcomings elsewhere. Psychologists find that narcissists are less aggressive—and less selfish—after being reminded that they’re athletic or funny.

Disagree With the Disagreeable

A final impediment to persuasion is disagreeableness, a trait often expressed through argumentativeness. Disagreeable people are determined to crush the competition, and when you urge them to reevaluate their strategy, that’s what you become. However, if you’re willing to stand up to them rather than back down, you can sometimes gain the upper hand.

Researchers studied how CEOs decided which executives to nominate for board seats at other companies. It turned out that candidates who had a habit of arguing before agreeing with their bosses were more likely to get the nod. At Apple in the 1980s, the leaders of the Mac team gave an award to one person a year who had the temerity to challenge Steve Jobs. Eventually Jobs promoted each winner to run a key division of the company.

 

When Apple’s engineers brought up the idea of making a phone, Jobs compiled a list of reasons why it wouldn’t work. One was that smartphones were for the “pocket-protector crowd.” His engineers agreed but then challenged him, asking “If Apple made a phone, how beautiful and elegant could it be?” They also tapped the competitive energy he felt toward Microsoft. Wouldn’t there be a Windows phone eventually? Jobs was intrigued but he still wasn’t sold. Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPod and a co-creator of the iPhone, told me that people “had to work as a group, not simply in one meeting but possibly over weeks, to get him to change his mind or to see things from another angle.” In the case of the iPhone, this argument continued for many months. Fadell and his engineers chipped away at his resistance by building early prototypes in secret, showing Jobs demos and refining their designs.

In 1985, after presiding over product launches that were technical wonders but sales busts, Steve Jobs was forced out of his own company. In 2005 he said, “It was awful-tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it.” He learned that no matter how powerful his vision was, there were still times when he had to rethink his convictions. When he returned as CEO, it was not only with newfound openness but also with greater determination to hire people ready to challenge him and help him overcome his own worst instincts. That set the stage for Apple’s resurgence.

Organizations need strong, visionary executives like Jobs. But they also need employees like Tony Fadell and Mike Bell, suppliers like Wendell Weeks, and stakeholders like the audience member who stood up to complain at Apple’s developer conference—people who know how to effectively counteract bosses and colleagues who tend toward overconfidence, stubbornness, narcissism, or disagreeableness. In a turbulent world, success depends not just on cognitive horsepower but also on cognitive flexibility. When leaders lack the wisdom to question their convictions, followers need the courage to persuade them to change their minds.

*Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist at Wharton and the author of “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.”