Changing the minds of others

You may have run into a situation this week where some people did not change their minds in spite of what you said and did. You may have given them all the information they might need to see things differently. You may have appealed to their emotions as well as their ability to reason. You may have gotten upset and tried to force them to change. You may have even gotten desperate and resorted to begging, bribing or cajoling them. Whatever you tried, it didn't work like you expected.

At this point, it's easy to conclude that the others are either stubborn, closed minded, creatures of habit or prisoners of their comfort zones. Cognitive neuroscience offers many better explanations for why we don't change our minds when others expect us to and do what they can to get it to happen. The new book by Charles Jacobs , Management Rewired - Why Feedback Doesn't Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science -- gives us lots of scientific insights into minds that don't change. Here's my way of describing four of them for you to consider.
  • We get hold of some big ideas that everything else we think has to agree with in principle. When someone gives us an idea that contradicts one little thing we think, it upsets our entire system of ideas from the big idea on down.
  • Before we have a thought come to mind about some new input, our mind goes through a Darwinian "survival of the fittest" to select one thought among a bunch of different possibilities we could think. When someone tells us what to think to get us to change our minds, that idea gets thrown in with all the others competing to win out and be the thought we think. It's chances are as slim as the many other lesser thoughts we've already got that do not show up as thinkable thoughts.
  • Before we receive anything from others, we've formulated realistic expectations based on our past experiences. If we get less or worse than we were expecting, we're uncontrollably upset in spite of how reasonable the thing we got might have been. If we get more or different than what we expected, we're thrilled for the moment. It doesn't depend on what we get nearly as much as what we're expecting to get.
  • Some of what we get from people mess with who we think we are, what reputation we're maintaining, and what's consistent with our past conduct. Our minds go onto autopilot to get rid of that awful feeling we get even if it takes lying, kidding ourselves or going along with something we disagree with entirely. We're usually content to simply discredit, blame or vilify those people who messed with our minds.
Using patterns of cognitive dynamics like these, it's possible to see that it's as upsetting for the person trying to change someone's mind as the person who's mind is not changing. Both are getting what they were thinking contradicted that then upsets everything from their big idea on down Both may be having familiar thoughts come to mind rather than any new idea thrown into the competition with a bunch of other possibilities. Both are failing to get their expectations met. Both are taking a hit to their pride, reputation and consistency.

Charles Jacobs has worked as a management consultant for many years. Management Rewired is filled with many episodes where managers resorted to desperate tactics when they failed to get others' minds to change. They dealt with people as if applying pressure, putting them down, intimidating them or withholding trust would get them to change their minds. Of course it backfires, but that outcome does not get managers to become more strategic, effective, empathetic or insightful. A desirable upgrade like those would involve a change of their own minds. Instead they continue to strut like alpha male gorillas, trap others in a classic "Prisoner's dilemma" or treat others like billiard balls to poke at and knock around.

The book offers lots of approaches that work with the facts that people have minds of their own, see things their own ways and respond according to what's going on inside them at the moment. The book is written to help managers and leaders become more effective. It obviously applies to mentors, coaches, counselors, teachers, trainers, writers and other professionals.

As Jacob's considered how conventional management methods yield unintended consequences due to the ways our brains function, he sees the wisdom in those breakthrough management methods of the 80's and 90's (self directed teams, empowerment, personal coaching, open book management, quality circles, communities of practice, etc.) His familiarity with the two kinds of change has convinced him of the power of storytelling to change people's minds. He explores how to come up with the right kind of dissonance that disturbs people's familiar story and gets them to take the leap into a breakthrough outlook. He contrasts transactional and transformational leadership conduct. He considers how to get enough sense of what others are thinking to formulate a counter intuitive move to defy others' expectations for more of the same old treatment, balancing acts or struggles.

I share the author's conviction that the world will be a better place once we see each other as dealing with internally active minds. Management Rewired can help you get the picture of what going on in others' heads that deserves our respect and consideration. The way we treat others and get them to change their minds shows vast room for improvement.

Related posts:
Switching brain strategies
Framing our constituencies
Empowering conversations
Revising unstoried possibilities
Fallout from a system
Questioning the feasibility of change
Using feedback to change identities
Third and fourth order change
Revising underlying structure
Winning without a battle


  1. Nice review. Some interesting ideas. Aswell as accepting that individuals have their own minds to be 'acted' upon there are also the cases where humans appear incapable of using their own reasoning, and will happily submit to group norms or leadership almost robotically. Zimbardos work on 'evil' can demonstrate the extremes of this.

    Another mechanism for breaking this or assisting the process of changing minds is failure. Events, results or situations that fundamentally question our view. Sometimes it takes alot of failure, a bit like the current economic crisis to break our view. But I'm itnerested how we can explicitly incorporate failure events into scenarios, in an authentic manner to induce reflection and enhance learning.

  2. Thanks for adding some great ideas to this. I view game-based learning as exceptional at providing "failure events" that induce reflection. Anytime a player reaches a "game-over - play again?" outcome, there's a fork in his/her road between try harder to avoid failure or try smarter to succeed in a different way. Games with great balance keep the player from thinking "stupid game - smart me" and challenge the player to formulate better strategies to meet all the objectives, not just the easy ones at the expense of the others. Here are a few ideas from counseling and therapy that may help you formulate some reflection-inducing failure scenarios:

    1. The player gets tempted to pick some "low hanging fruit" and find s/he can succeed at this, oblivious to the hidden penalties until it becomes obvious how the "fruit" was bait for a set-up.
    2. The player makes progress thinking in dichotomies (always/never, friend/foe, totally right/totally wrong, etc) until those cognitive distortions get the player into trouble which can only be escaped by changing his/her thinking upon reflection to: it takes both, it's a continuum between the extremes, it depends on the situation, etc.
    3. The player starts out with an obvious problem, challenge, threat or complaint to tackle. Deeper into the scenario, the player discovers the problem is really a solution in use, the obvious challenge is a misdiagnosis of the real difficulty, the threat is a disguised opportunity and the complaint is misreading the relationship.
    4. The player gets rewarded early for being right, only to find later in the game that being right makes others wrong, gives the wrong impression to the team, creates fallout that requires costly clean-up, etc.

    I hope these help you out a little.