As an expert in negotiation and conflict resolution, I am often asked about the best tools for managing entrenched disputes or settling fierce disagreements.
Corporate managers who rise through the ranks on their smarts are skilled at making a compelling business case for their preferred outcome. To them, the data is so obvious and overwhelming that it seems sufficient to lead others to reach the same conclusion. This approach may work for balance sheets; it’s often not enough for humans.
Neuroscience and behavioral economics say the best approach for changing someone’s mind, for bringing them to your side, is a combination of reason and emotion.
Boards often send their leaders to work with me to learn the limits of logic as a tool of persuasion. It marks a turning point when these clients recognize that humans are innately emotional creatures. Understanding the emotions in play, and empathizing with them, is vital for bringing people to a new perspective.
The business case will always matter. No one wants to spend time and energy on nonsense. Yet effective leaders know that real influence takes more than exerting authority or relying on statistical arguments.
Rationality is not the playing field where persuasion is won or lost.
Facts and Figures Fall Short
In the workplace, managers often use their positional power to get people to do things. Your direct reports need not agree with you to do what they’re told. You are the boss. That is not an act of persuasion; it is enforcing deference to authority.
When managers do try to bring people on board, they typically deliver facts – reports, data, projections and overviews – that bolster their decision. For them, the case is clear. If the team already agrees, this confirms the manager’s opinion. If the team members strongly disagree, no matter how vast the trove of data, it won’t turn them around.
Let’s say an employee feels disrespected by their assigned role on a project. Another feels disloyal to that colleague by working on it. A different team member wrestles with ethical considerations, while others feel angry that the team fails to reflect the company’s stated commitments to sustainability or diversity, equity and inclusion.
These emotions are strong, real and central to how these team members will decide how to behave. They may stay and work half-heartedly. They may leave the project or even leave the firm if they feel strongly enough.
A hallmark of experienced leaders is their ability to influence through building followership. This approach depends on genuine human connection, on personal engagement, on emotion, on compassion. People need not be like-minded to willingly follow a leader. Rather they need to trust that the leader will hear them out, care about their concerns and will work hard to understand their point of view. With that faith in place, followers are open to the real persuasion that happens when emotion and reason come together.
When Emotion Meets Reason
For centuries, philosophers argued that emotions were a nuisance that interfered with sound decision-making. If you extend that view, then people should make the best decisions if they have no feelings at all – a la Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.
A brain scientist turned that belief on its head 40 years ago. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, found the exact opposite. Patients with brain damage that had severed their ability to feel emotions could barely decide anything, Damasio noted in his book “Descartes’ Error.” Neuroscientists since then have confirmed Damasio’s conclusion that human beings depend on emotions to make even the most mundane and insignificant decisions.
When we feel nothing, we cannot make up our minds. Nor can we change our minds, since we cannot form a clear opinion in the first place.
Creating a Collaborative Workplace in Troubled Times
The angry polarization in our larger society has found its way into our workplaces. If we seek to influence through appeals to reason alone, we will not be able to come to consensus or create a collaborative, innovative, psychologically safe workplace – not about COVID-19 vaccinations, not about mask-wearing, not about diversity, equity and inclusion, not about our business objectives.
Leaders need to find ways to bridge those divides and to ensure emotional buy-in with whatever policies their business adopts.
Certainly facts, science and business realities will be part of the equation, but it won’t add up without emotion. Reason and emotion together are the team that wins the heart, the mind, the brain and the argument.