Have you ever been in a position where the right answer is immediately obvious to you and yet you cannot get the other party to come around? While we tend to ascribe poor outcomes to the other party’s incompetence, there is actually a very real psychological phenomenon behind the dynamic. Understanding the psychology can help you formulate different strategies in making progress.
So what is really going on these types of situations?
To make this post more effective, I am going to use a real example from an associate of mine. I will, of course, redact the names to protect the innocent. Recently, I was having a conversation with an executive from another company. We will call this particular individual Albert. Albert was commenting on the efficacy of the sales team that is responsible for peddling his product. In short, his thesis is that the sales team needs to be improved.
Albert has watched this particular sales team execute poorly over some time. Where relationships ought to reign supreme, this team is more interested in competing on price. They offer steep discounts to try to secure new business, which is both a perilous strategy and an unnecessarily costly one. Additionally, because they are always looking for an edge, they frequently take inside roadmap information and quickly leak it to would-be customers in an effort to secure new deals.
In listening to Albert talk about his sales team, honestly, it could have been just about anyone’s sales teams. The situation was not particularly uncommon, and the state of affairs was not uniquely bad.
I asked Albert what he thought ought to be done. Also not surprisingly, his answer was to shoot everyone in the head and start over with a more capable sales team. Now, whenever you hear that the answer is to terminate people, it means that there have been several levels of failure preceding. No one immediately concludes that letting people go is the plan. Rather, this reflects numerous failed attempts to make change.
So I asked Albert if he had ever tried to communicate ideas to the head of sales?
Of course! I put together a business plan and walked him through all the logic. The conclusion of Albert’s story was that the head of sales didn’t understand or didn’t agree with the plan. The logic was irrefutable, so either he was incompetent or obstinate. It almost doesn’t matter which is the culprit; in either case, the proper path forward is to replace the leader and then turn over the team.
But what if I told you that the outcome here was predetermined? It actually doesn’t really matter whether the individual is competent or not. The way that Albert had handled the situation was going to almost inevitably result in the kind of standoff that occurred. Now I am not suggesting that the head of sales was good (I have no way of knowing), but the way that Albert tried to sell his ideas ignored some very basic psychology.
In most of these types of situations, there is some existing state. Someone has made a set of decisions that have led everyone to where things are now. You believe that things ought to be different than the way they are. So you put together your plan, you surround it with flawless logic, and then you communicate that logic to the individual responsible in the hopes that he will conclude that your plan is correct.
The subtle point here is that there are actually two conclusions that the person usually has to reach. Yes, they have to identify that your path forward is the right one. But they must also conclude that the current way of doing things is the wrong way. Put differently, if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. Since you are suggesting a fix, then something has to be broken.
For most people, admitting you are wrong is emotional. I don’t mean that people will necessarily break down into tears, but the act of being wrong requires a bit of internal reconciliation.
So is it surprising that even though your logical argument is sound, the person on the receiving side doesn’t necessarily embrace the conclusion?
In fact, in many situations, the person you are talking to might even nod their head during the entire conversation. Every point is conceded. There is no real obstacle. Logically, you both agree that 1+1=2. And then right as you make your proud declaration, they shake their head and utter something that starts with “But…”
Right here, at the point of attack, most of us dig even deeper into our logic. We might start going over our points a second time. We might restate some of the same ideas in slightly different ways. If he doesn’t agree, he probably just didn’t understand what I was saying. Let me say it again in a different way! This is like talking to someone who doesn’t understand your language, and when they show confusion, you say it again – louder and slower.
The problem isn’t the volume or the speed anymore than it is the basic logic. People generally understand what we say. The real issue here is that you are trying to use logic to win an emotional battle. It’s the wrong tool at the wrong time, and failure in these situations is exceedingly likely.
But I am right! Once you slip into this mindset, you have lost. The objective is not to be right. In Albert’s case, the end goal is having a successful sales team. It doesn’t actually matter who is right and wrong. The debate isn’t the meaningful objective here. Put differently, you might be right, but would you rather be right or effective?
So what can you do differently?
First, you need to realize what kind of situation you are in. If you are engaging with the person responsible for the status quo, then take the issue of right and wrong off the table in the first exchange. When we started the sales team, we needed to get up to speed quickly with a product that was barely defined and in a market space that was still emerging. Given those conditions and our budget constraints, I think we can all agree that we have actually made the right choices.
This type of opening does two things. First, you are basically saying that nothing the other person did is particularly wrong. This immediately defuses the emotional side of your logical argument. You are only asking the person to conclude that there is a different path forward. Second, the subtle casting of the situation in terms of “we” and “our” removes the us vs. them dynamic that frequently accompanies these types of situations. Essentially, the dynamic you really want is you and me vs. The Problem. Our common enemy is the budget or the market or whatever. We are not actually enemies.
From here, you need to establish that while whatever decisions have been made were fine given a set of circumstances, those circumstances have materially changed. Now that the market is a bit more established and our product is better understood, there might be different ways of approaching sales.
Again, there are two points here. First, the argument is that circumstances are different. It could be that things have materially changed, or it might simply be that you now have better information about what works and doesn’t. Either way, something is different. And second, you aren’t being prescriptive so much as you are opening up a conversation. A more collaborative approach helps to keep people engaged.
Ultimately, the goal here is not to prescribe some action. The real goal is to change the outcome. As you engage in discussion, if you keep the conversation centered around the outcome, you might even find that the individual has other ideas to help drive to a positive conclusion. Remember: this is less about right and wrong and more about getting better end results.
While the example that I have used is somewhat organizational, this situation is actually far more common than you might realize. As a networking industry, we are in the midst of a major architectural transition. Those who are advocating SDN, NFV, network virtualization, and other technologies frequently fall back to assailing existing architectures.
Unintentionally, we marketers and salespeople are putting an awful lot of people into a position where we are asking them to admit they are wrong. We explain the technology, we highlight the benefits, and we produce immaculate graphs and charts as evidence, and then we are shocked when the conclusion is not to move forward.
A more interesting approach might be to acknowledge that the decisions that have been made to date were exactly the right ones given the technology and constraints. But those conditions are different now, and maybe there is a different path forward.
By understanding the underlying psychology and being clear about the objective, we might be able to avoid the painful right and wrong dynamic that is all too common in all our lives.
[Today's fun fact: The longest recorded flight of a chicken is thirteen seconds. I wonder if this reflects chicken flight times or our collective interest in recording them.]
Selling your ideas: Avoid making someone wrong