How to Change Minds

By Jon Miller Updated on April 4th, 2016

arm wrestlingOne of the most common challenges people face when leading continuous improvement is persuading others to change. We agree that want a different results, we agree that this requires different processes and different behaviors, and we agree that what this really means is a new mindset, philosophy or culture. Like a machine boring unseen under the city, as we get into the guts of the physical or process changes, we meet resistance. After the rah-rah kickoff, the training, the rapid improvement workshops, finding new and better ways, the celebrations, progress slows. What gives?We discover minds haven’t changed. How does a continuous improvement leader see to it that minds are changed, and stay changed?

The process of changing someone’s mind is a war of attrition, according to a Fast Company article titled How to Change Someone’s Mind, According to Science. That’s a rather violent metaphor. The message is that it is often ineffective to change a person’s mind with one grand winning argument. Even when minds appear to change, flipped like a switch as the power of teams, visible management support and employee engagement bring out the best in everyone, the war is not won.

The article cites a new theory of something called “explanatory coherence” as a key to changing minds. In essence, coherence is what makes our beliefs and ideas stick in our minds, perhaps like a bug caught bug in a web. We may want to fly away in a new direction, but we can’t until we break a few strands of the web. Here is an example from the article,

The idea is that our strongly held beliefs form a network of consistent concepts. For example, I might believe that multitasking is a good thing. I support that belief with aspects of my own experience: Maybe I remember having especially productive days while multitasking. I also know of other colleagues who multitask, which strengthens my belief that it works.

Those of us who have encountered the, “We’ve always done it this way” argument recognizes the power of this web of belief. Any defense of the status quo based on anecdotes of success, rather than objective data comparing method A to B, is an example of this web. And confirmation bias is just a case of believing the web we are caught in is the whole world, because we can’t escape the web to see otherwise.

The article suggests that we cause “incoherence” in order to free people from the web and begin changing minds. That’s a rather broad prescription, as just about anything that is absurd or illogical or rambling or off-the-wall can be incoherent. The idea is to weaken or remove coherence, or loosen the mental bonds that keep the central idea from being replaced with the new idea. It is not unlike performing a root cause analysis for a practical problem, drawing fishbone diagrams and asking the 5 whys, to identify the contributing factors to a problem. How do we change minds? We investigate what’s preventing the change, or keeping the belief coherent, and act on those causes.

Whenever we hear, “Well, I still think I’m right,” after we have made our point, presented a winning argument, or given enough evidence to change a reasonable person’s mind, we should recall that reasonable people are also emotional people. It is useful to borrow Aristotle’s modes of persuasion in changing minds: ethos, pathos and logos. Logos is logic, showing the benefits of the new way or proposed change through facts, data and studies. While necessary, we tend to rely too much on logos. Pathos helps us break the strands in our web of beliefs, making an emotional adjustment to the new condition. This can be by feeling bad about supporting an false believe in a way that is obviously damaging, or feeling good about a change that will bring benefit. We recognize this in the “Oh, crap!” or “A-ha!” moments that bring a physical and emotional reaction, and can help us change or cause us to get further caught in our own web. Ethos, is persuasion by a person who is respected, trusted and credible, making acceptance of new facts and a different emotional response to these facts more likely.

The effective continuous improvement leader persuades through a balance of the three modes. The changing of minds involves a chipping away at, or de-cohering, the webs of old beliefs. It involves stronger coherence by building personal trust, factual underpinning and emotional acceptance. That, at least, is the logos of it.

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