Harvard professor Howard Gardner says it is possible to get others to see things differently; but it takes perseverance and finesse.
Famed Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, noted for his theory of multiple intelligences, recently published Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds (Harvard Business School Press, 2004). This quick, enjoyable read outlines Gardner's research and thinking on how best to convince others (or yourself) to adopt a different viewpoint in various settings, including business. Gardner sat down with CIO to talk about the difficulties inherent in the process of changing someone's mind and the seven "levers" by which leaders can accomplish it.
CIO: Describe the "mind-changing paradox" referred to in your book.
Howard Gardner: People underestimate how difficult it is to change minds. The mind-changing paradox is my attempt to capture that. When you're little, your mind changes pretty readily, even if nobody pushes it. We are natural mind-changing entities until we are 10 or so. But as we get older and have acquired more formal and informal knowledge, then it's very, very hard to change our minds. Which doesn't mean you should give up. It means you need to be intelligent and strategic about it and persevering.
I'm not stating that on small matters it's difficult to change people's minds. A coffee break at 3.00 rather than 1.00 — that's trivial. But on fundamental ideas on how the world works, about what your enterprise is about, about what your life goals are, about what it takes to survive — it's on these topics that it's very difficult to change people's minds. Most people, by the time they're adults, not only have become used to a certain way of thinking, but in a sense it's work for them [to change] because their neural pathways become set.
[For a leader] to say it's a new ball game, that [employees] have to make different kinds of assumptions, that the usual procedures and the usual rewards and the usual skills are not adequate or are misplaced - this is really calling for a revisiting of fundamentals [on the part of employees]. And it's very hard to revisit fundamentals.
For instance, when British Petroleum says: "We're no longer in the energy business, we're in the blah-blah business," an employee may very well say: "That's wrong. We are in the energy business, and we have been for a hundred years. And who's this guy coming out and saying we're in the blah-blah business?" That's hard [for leaders] to overcome.
CIO: What are the most important of your mind-changing levers?
It all depends on the situation, on whether you're talking about employees in a company or lovers or antagonists or your own mind.
But there are at least two things whose importance is underestimated. One is the lever of what I call representational redescriptions. Get the message out in lots and lots of different ways, lots of different symbol systems, lots of different intelligences and lots of different embodiments. The notion that you say it once and it gets through is just wrong. So is the notion that you can simply repeat yourself. You have to be extremely resourceful in finding diverse ways to get the same desired mind-change across.
The second [most important] thing is that people underestimate just how powerful resistances are. There are three factors involved in resistances: age, emotion and public stance. First of all, the longer your neural networks have been running one way, the harder it is to rewire them. Unfortunately, that's just a fact of life. Number two, the things that you feel very strongly about emotionally are the hardest to change your mind about. And three, particularly for people who are in public life, are things on which you've taken a public stand. That's hard to reverse.
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