People don’t change their minds.
Well, sometimes they do, but it’s a slow process, and people almost never change their mind because you convinced them to. Journeys of self-discovery, traumatic events, and loss of faith in leaders are much more likely to change minds than arguments.
This idea is backed by psychology, experience, and all sorts of other empirical data - we know that facts don’t change minds. Ideas that are long-held, deeply-held, highly incentivized, highly personal, or tied to someone’s identity are even harder to change.
There are some interesting conclusions from this idea that you can apply to your organization, notably:
- Don’t expect to change everyone’s mind
- Stop making people make up their mind
Don’t Expect To Change Everyone’s Mind
While healthy organizations have processes in place to ensure that decisions are made thoughtfully, you should expect that even your strongest team members will occasionally (if not regularly) seem impervious to what you consider flawless logic.
You shouldn’t try to change everyone’s mind, because you can’t, especially the people whose mind is made up. As you debate decisions, your goal should be to:
- Find what you consider to be the right answer using the right method/logic
- Ensure that people who haven’t made their mind up yet find the decision and evidence compelling.
- Ensure that people who disagree are broadly OK with disagreeing and committing. A good, logical argument can convince people of a soundness of method and create a willingness to commit to the decision - this is the best possible outcome for this cohort.
- Relatedly, sometimes you must disagree and commit. As long as you believe the method to be reasonable, you shouldn’t demand total decision satisfaction - sometimes you’re the one with unreasonable decision anchoring.
Like all management, this idea is a statement of nuance - if too many people are seemingly intransigent too often, you have a problem. However, periodic disagreement on grounds you find somewhat unreasonable is expected.
As a manager, you will often desire perfect logic all the time. However, you should avoid overworking disagreements, especially if people are willing to disagree and commit. Avoid things like:
- Having the one thing you and your star performer disagree about show up in the performance assessment. Let people have what you consider unreasonable opinion once and awhile.
- Really demanding you get a star performer to change their mind to your POV. They probably won’t change their mind, and you risk fracturing a relationship.
You can’t change everyone’s mind, so don’t try to. Get to decisions, even if some people are seeming to disagree illogically.
Stop Making People Make Up Their Mind
One of the biggest unforced errors that companies make is pushing people into making decisions when they either don’t need to. Forcing people to make up their minds is an easy way to entrench beliefs, often when people don’t have the context or time to have an informed opinion.
A common example of forcing unnecessary decisions is asking your team to vote. If you ask your team something like “should we prioritize making tests faster” and then do what the majority says, everyone who answered against your path will disagree with what you did. In this case you forced them to make up their mind, and then decided against it. Alternatively, you could ask things like:
- Based on what you have information about, what would you say are the top 5 priorities? What information would you need to prioritize more effectively?
- What are the pros and cons of prioritizing a test speed acceleration project now?
Both of these questions give the surveyed population the ability to give feedback without having to make a decision. Some people may have their mind made up, but those that haven’t are not pushed into a decision. In this way, you avoid people having to pick side.
Another common example is having teams do significant amounts of research and development before design and architecture review. Many organizations have uniquely capable decision makers that are inserted too late into decision making processes, pitting the right decision against the one people have spent a lot of time on. By inserting stronger partnership earlier in the process, you avoid the cognitive dissonance of getting the right answer at the wrong time, after you had already gotten your heart set on the wrong one.
The most blatant example of this anti-pattern is when software engineering cultures explicitly value “strong opinions” as a thing for growth in role. That often creates a culture where you’re encouraged to make your mind up on everything and be fanatical about it. This is a mistake.
A nuanced example of this anti-pattern is when people agree with people instead of ideas. Bob might say in a meeting “I think we should expand to Europe” and Alice will respond “I agree with Bob’s idea.” This creates many problems:
- Ascribing the idea to Bob cements his personal ownership of it, making it harder for him to drop the idea if it’s wrong, entrenching his opinion.
- The behavior implicitly starts building a team and dividing the group into Bob’s team and everyone else, entrenching opinions on both sides.
- That framing most common way for idea-attribution to get messed up. Bob may have had nothing to do with that idea’s genesis, he was just the most recent person to say it. But now everyone will leave this meeting thinking it’s his.
Instead, Alice can say: “I agree we should expand to Europe.”
Create a culture that values being thoughtful over being right
To avoid “strong opinion” culture, you should encourage everyone hold only two three strong beliefs:
- We do the right thing
- Being right for the wrong reasons (or by chance) is just as worthless as being wrong
- Being wrong for the right reasons is fine
If you value doing the right thing and figuring out how to do the right thing, everything else is just inputs into an equation. As inputs change, outcomes can change, and no cognitive dissonance is introduced in the process.
To enact this kind of culture, you consider the following methods:
- Write. Thoughtful writing is the palliative to politics. Keep notes of all decisions and require logical arguments based on measured consideration.
- Lead by example.
- As a leader, see bullet one - you should write. Too many leaders are afraid to put their decision calculus down in writing. Whether it’s fear of documented errors or leading in a political way or something else - there are very few good reasons not to write as a leader.
- You should also be willing to be wrong about things. A leader whose power relies on being right all the time is no leader at all.
- Value logic over blind accuracy. If someone can’t explain why something is the right answer, it’s as good as not knowing the answer at all. People who say things like “because it’s the right thing to do” need to be calmly but firmly told that leaders show their work.
Create a culture that avoids encouraging people to strongly form unnecessary beliefs. The more you do this, the more you limit your ability to find the truth and execute well. Stop making people make up their mind.