There are many good books on persuasion, all designed to successfully persuade others of the superiority of our views over theirs. Strong leaders, we have been told, must possess confidence, conviction, and consistency as embodied by General George S. Patton, for example.
Globalization and the rapid advancement of technology (to name but two factors,) have made our world more complex, dynamic, and unpredictable than ever before. In uncertain and dynamic environments, it is impossible to have all the answers.
Pittamapalli’s book, Persuadable, is an essential insight into a serious issue: What if it is your view that should change, not theirs?
Persuadability, is “the genuine willingness and ability to change your mind in the face of new evidence,” and this is a much underappreciated advantage in business, (as in life in general.) “It’s one of the most critical skills of modern leadership,” Pittamapalli asserts. In this book he describes quality research from cognitive and social psychology, and combines this knowledge with insights from well-known business leaders. Distilling all this information, Pittamapalli identifies seven practices of persuadable leaders including - considering the opposite, updating your beliefs incrementally; “killing your darlings;” taking the perspectives of others, and avoiding being too persuadable.
Admiral William McRaven was the leader of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Under his leadership the success rate for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan surged from 35% to over 80%. Far from exuding confidence, conviction, and consistency, he is ever vigilant about being overconfident. “He seems fully prepared to abandon an idea that no longer makes sense, and he doesn’t seem to care much at all about being consistent,” Pittamapalli reports.
Jeff Bezos, the self-made billionaire founder and CEO of Amazon, has changed his mind countless times, and abandoned many projects. Some of Amazon’s greatest innovations were the result of abandoning an idea rapidly, and then pivoting towards a better one.
Amazon Auctions was designed to compete with eBay, but was failing, so Bezos shut it down, and the germ of that idea became Amazon’s third-party-sellers programme, which is highly successful. “People who are right change their minds a lot,” he believes.
Ray Dalio is the founder and CEO of Bridgewater, the most successful hedge fund in the world. Based on total returns to investors, Dalio has recently surpassed investor George Soros as the most successful money manager in history. Dalio ruthlessly scrutinises his own failed trades to learn from his mistakes, and willingly admits he doesn’t understand the world perfectly. This is possibly his greatest asset. Dalio is genuinely open to criticism, not as an act of selflessness, but from profound self-interest.
McRaven, Bezos, and Dalio are hugely successful examples of people with a mind-set very different from the leaders with confidence, conviction and consistency. Their mind-set is persuadability.
Persuadable leaders understand that they are limited by their own biases, and so they actively and often seek out the opinions of others.
However, this open-mindedness is not easily achieved. It requires leaders to be what Professor Baron of the University of Pennsylvania, calls “actively open-minded,” something that people don’t do naturally.
Consider your response to being informed by a doctor that you have a rare life-threatening disease. What would be your first course of action? Seeking a competent second opinion. What would your course of action be if you were told you were in perfect health. Would you even think to get a second opinion? Unlikely, because the results confirm what you wish to hear.
To be actively open-minded, requires being in a hurry to find out the truth, whether it is good or bad. People do not see the truth when it threatens something that they care about. It is impossible to make a person understand something, when his salary depends on him not understanding it. “The most powerful resistance comes when the truth threatens our identity rather than confirming it,” the author explains.
There are a number of simple, but not easy techniques Pittamapalli shares, that can help us overcome the confirmation bias. One technique, considering the opposite, requires the recognition of counterevidence, and the most direct and helpful way to do this is just to consider the opposite.
Another technique is that we should be updating our beliefs with evidence regularly.
A practical way to avoid being too persuadable is to find three pieces of counterevidence before changing your stance. To change your mind based on three pieces of counterevidence will provide you with the confidence that a change is required.
Effective leadership requires the understanding that the way the leader see the world, isn’t necessarily the way others see it. We need the other person’s perspective. “When leaders actually focus on perspective taking, it becomes a real competitive advantage for them,” Pittamapalli explains.
Being persuadable cannot be ongoing; at some point a decision must be made, but when is the right time to stop? Pittamapalli suggests that we think in term of the returns on the effort to solicit more opinions. There is a point after which soliciting other opinions provides a diminishing return. The question must be, “Is it worth it?” Persuadable leaders needs to be alert, so they do not find themselves falling into unnecessary perfectionism and over analysis.
In short, there is one way that is certain to improve any belief: expose it to criticism. “Avoid absolute closure on anything. No issue is ever completely settled,” Pittamapalli reminds us.
To commit to persuadability as a leadership tool, is a commitment to never-ending self-correction.
Readability Light --+-- Serious
Insights High -+--- Low
Practical High --+-- Low
Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy