Harvard's Howard Gardner: Changing Minds is Difficult

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.

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.

You say it’s relatively easy to change the minds of employees, even those who work for large companies.

Easier, not easy, I would say. There’s a distinction between leading a nation, leading a sprawling company and leading a more focused company like, say, Microsoft. The more the company is homogeneous, in the sense that the people have the same type of training and the same kind of background, the more you can approach these things at a conceptual and theoretical level. Any CEO or CIO needs to make a distinction between the times he or she is addressing a rather heterogeneous group?say, everybody who works for Wal-Mart?as opposed to dealing with top management. It’s a matter of identifying and speaking to your audience. Think about what you’re doing when you’re dealing with the whole organization, and what you’re doing when you’re dealing with a homogeneous group?which is most likely to be the people in your immediate circle, but it could be a very different group as long as they’re homogeneous. It could be all the technical people working in the same corner, it could be the people in charge of the website?they all have the same expertise.

How much of changing minds is manipulation?

I don’t believe behavior change lasts unless people’s minds change voluntarily. I’m interested in leadership that’s overt and mind-changing that’s intentional. People often way overemphasize how much they have to keep things a secret and manipulate people. To be sure, there’s evidence that in the short run, it’s much more effective to be deceptive. Many people think they have to deceive in the short run. But in the long run, people and companies get found out. Ultimately, manipulation backfires.

You say that stories are one of the most effective ways for changing minds in organizations. What kinds of stories?

When I say story or narrative, I have a pretty elaborate definition. There has to be a protagonist. There have to be goals. There have to be obstacles people can identify with. There has to be an ultimate resolution?hopefully a positive one. It’s not the same as having a message or a vision or a slogan. It’s a more encompassing, realistic, enveloping thing.

The overall narrative of your story is so important. Basically, what leaders of organizations ask [you the employee] to do is put aside or reject the story you have grown up with, believed in, internalized and seen yourself as a character in. Leaders say, "No, it’s a different story. You may not like it initially, but it’s a better story in the long run, and you have to go with it, and here’s why, and I’m going to show you by my own behavior that it’s important."

Usually the people best at dissolving resistances are the ones who have the same resistances themselves?because they know in their gut how powerful they are.

Besides changing the minds of their staffs, CIOs have to convince CEOs and other top officers of their goals.

When it’s two people talking, resonance is the key factor. There is no general recipe for resonance; you have to know your audience well enough to know what’s going to resonate with this person on this day. If you want to bring about a change in the CEO, you have to know him or her very well. You need to do your homework before you get into that one-on-one situation. You need to know if this person is a story person, a theory person, an emotion person or a paranoid person. You need to know what are the sets of levers that work with him. And to the extent that it’s a very high-stakes performance?this is your two minutes, you have to make the case now or never?you’ve got to be monitoring very carefully.

How can CIOs respond to unrealistic expectations?

The most important levers are, again, representational redescriptions and resistances, and let me add a third one, "real world." First is just trying lots and lots of ways to say your message. Give your message in more than one way, arranging things so the [listener] has a different experience. That’s what having a drink after work with someone is about. A few times in my life, I engineered to get a seat on an airplane next to somebody I wanted to convince about something, because it’s a different setting when the usual assumptions and resistances may be idling.

Never assume just because people seem convinced that the battle is totally won. You have to think about it as a military or political campaign; it’s a long process, not a single battle.

You’ve got to be on your toes all the time to buoy your particular representation of things and undermine the others’ versions of things. That’s where real world comes in. Take advantage of real-world events; use newspaper clippings, studies, testimonials?any examples of companies that did something and it didn’t work and why.

Most important, even if you’ve convinced someone of your case, one of the things we know from cognitive science is that there’s always backsliding. You have to reinforce your message in as many different ways over as long a period of time as possible.

Does your framework for changing minds work in every instance?

Sometimes you’re not going to change people’s minds. Then you have to make a choice. There are four things you can do: quit; do what you’re told; do guerrilla work, which is where you nod your head but then do what you want to do; or you can change the entity, work to change the organization into one that fits your goal.

Fundamentalism is a kind of a decision to not change your mind about something. We tend to think of fundamentalism in religious terms, but many of us are fundamentalists (for example, in our assumptions about work or family) because it’s worked pretty well for us.

One thing to consider is what you’re a fundamentalist about. Are you open to changing your own mind? I wouldn’t have any faith in a leader who said that he should never change his mind. On the other hand, I think there are some basic values where people ought to be very judicious about changing their minds.

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