How to Persuade Others You’ve Made the Right Decisions

*This article about persuasion is part of our new series about the Get Stuff Done (GSD) Wheel and has been excerpted from Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.

You’ve managed to drive your team to a decision, but there are still people who don’t agree with it — the same people who will be responsible for helping to implement it. If you’re working efficiently, not everybody on your team is involved in every step of the listen-clarify-debate-decide process for everything — just the relevant people.

Now that a decision has been reached, it’s time to get more people on board. This isn’t easy, and it’s vital to get it right. Persuasion at this stage can feel unnecessary and make the decider resentful of people on the team who aren’t fully in agreement. 

The decider has painstakingly gone through the listen, clarify, and debate steps and made a decision. Why doesn’t everyone else get why it’s obvious we should do this — or at least be willing to fall in line?

But expecting others to implement a decision without being persuaded that it’s the right thing to do is a recipe for terrible results. And don’t imagine that you can step in and simply tell everyone to get in line behind a decision, whether you have made it or somebody else has. 

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Even explaining the decision is not enough, because that addresses only the logic; you have to address your listener’s emotions as well. And you must establish that the decider, whether that’s you or somebody else on your team, has credibility if you expect others to implement the decision.

Authoritarian bosses tend to be particularly weak persuaders; they don’t feel a need to explain the decision or their logic — “Just do it, don’t question me!” And, because they usually don’t know or care how the people on the broader team feel, they don’t address their emotions. 

They fail to establish their credibility because they expect people to do what they say simply because they’re the boss. But even more democratic, open bosses often get so lost in explaining the rationale for a decision that they forget how people must feel about it, or vice versa. 

If you have done the basic work of Radical Candor — of getting to know each of your direct reports personally and establishing a norm of open exchange — it will be easier. 

But even then, being persuasive doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. Many leaders I’ve worked with fail to be persuasive because they don’t want to come across as manipulative, and the line between persuasion and manipulation can be a fine one. 

Aristotle was troubled that so much rhetoric and persuasion came down to manipulating people’s emotions. He thought that there had to be a better way to get an idea across to a large number of people who don’t have the time or knowledge to understand it completely.

He resolved this by explaining that to be legitimately persuasive a speaker must address the audience’s emotions but also establish credibility and share the logic of the argument. These are the elements of persuasion that have stood the test of time.

To help you be more persuasive, and to teach the “deciders” on your team to be more persuasive, the rest of this section will cover, briefly, Aristotle’s elements of rhetoric — pathos, logos, and ethos, which I’ll translate loosely as emotion, logic, and credibility.

Emotion: The listener’s emotions, not the speaker’s

Listening

You might have a strong emotional connection to a decision. It might be that you see it leading to a change that is likely to help a large group of people. But if you fail to take into account your listener’s emotions, too, you won’t be persuasive.

I had a colleague named “Jason” who was responsible for making his product usable for deaf people. He couldn’t have been more passionate about his work — his mother was deaf — but he was unable to persuade the engineering team to prioritize certain key features in time for launch. 

When I showed him Aristotle’s framework, he exploded. “I don’t know how I could have put any more emotion into my arguments,” he said, his voice choked with frustration. He’d explained to them his personal connection to the project. They’d seemed moved, but they still hadn’t gotten it done.

“What were the emotions on the engineering team like?” I asked. “Oh. They were just exhausted. They’d been pulling all-nighters for weeks. It was like a death march over there.”

“What did you do to address their emotions?”

Jason smacked his forehead, seeing clearly now where he’d gone wrong. When Steve Jobs made his 2003 announcement that Apple would launch iTunes for the Windows platform, he knew he was doing more than just announcing a new product. 

For the Mac faithful, any accommodation to Microsoft was nothing short of betrayal. The logic behind the decision to launch iTunes for the Windows platform was sound: to win the music industry, Apple had to be on the platform that had over 90% market share — not just Mac, which had under 5%. 

But leading with this logic only would have made the Mac faithful angrier. So instead he acknowledged their incredulity and disbelief — with the headline “Hell froze over” — and took their emotional response seriously by reassuring them that Apple would remain true to its core.

Dick Costolo, when he was CEO of Twitter, was the master at connecting with the emotions of “Tweeps,” people who work at Twitter. I have scrutinized many employee engagement surveys. I thought it was impossible to do better than Steve Jobs. 

Well over 90% of Apple employees reported feeling positive about their CEO when I was at Apple. But an even higher percentage of Tweeps felt positive about Dick as their CEO.

Dick’s warm sense of humor helped him connect to people’s emotions and earn their trust, which made him a persuasive leader. Dick often had everyone at Twitter’s company all-hands meetings doubled over with laughter, most especially with his unexpectedly candid responses to somewhat hostile impromptu questions. 

I asked him how he came up with these responses, and he replied, with a characteristic smile, “Unfortunately, they just come to me.”

If you don’t happen to have experience as a stand-up comedian, you can still borrow a page out of Dick’s book. He recommended several great improv classes to other leaders in Silicon Valley, to help them find a way to have fun answering all the awkward questions at all-hands meetings instead of dreading them.

Credibility: Demonstrate expertise and humility

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Credibility is one of those things that is hard to articulate but you know it when you see it. Part of it is obviously knowing your subject and demonstrating a track record of sound decisions. But it also requires a third component — humility — which is sometimes in short supply.

Steve Jobs, not always thought of as a model of humility, had a knack for inserting some “aw, shucks” elements into product announcements. 

For example, at the 2010 iPad launch, Jobs started by saying, “We started Apple in 1976. Thirty-four years later we just ended our holiday quarter . . . with $15.6 billion of revenue. I don’t even believe that. Now what that means is that Apple is an over-50-billion-dollar company. Now I like to forget that, ’cause that’s not how we think about Apple. But it is pretty amazing.”

Behind him was an image of two geeks with a clunky box, a reminder of Apple’s humble beginnings and the fact that Apple was driven by a zeal for building products that could change the world, not just a desire for profit. This added context allowed Jobs to point out that Apple had the expertise and resources to create a whole new category of computer without losing his audience.

Note in particular the carefully chosen language in this sentence: “Now I like to forget that, ’cause that’s not how we think about Apple.” The “we” here is an important part of establishing humility for himself and for the entire company.

But how do you establish your credibility if you don’t happen to be Steve Jobs with a track record of so-called Schumpeterian change, or if you’re so new that you don’t have much of a track record at all? 

Focus on your expertise and past accomplishments. Be humble and invoke a “we” not an “I” whenever possible. Bragging doesn’t work, but neither does false humility. Don’t forget to establish your credibility or to help the deciders on your team to establish theirs when it’s time for them to persuade others to implement a decision.

Logic: Show your work

Most people expect that the “logic” part of persuasion will be easiest, since it doesn’t present the personal awkwardness of establishing credibility or require the psychological finesse of addressing the collective emotions of a group of people. 

And yet it contains its own traps. Sometimes, the logic may seem self-evident to you, so you fail to share it with others. When you know something deeply, it’s hard to remember that others don’t.

The good news is that you learned the secret to sharing your logic in high school math class: show your work. When Steve Jobs had an idea, he wouldn’t just describe the idea; he’d share how he got to it. 

He showed his work. This signaled that if there was a flaw in his reasoning, he wanted to

know about it. And if there wasn’t, people would be more likely to accept his idea. Showing his work was what strengthened his logic and ultimately made him not only persuasive but “always getting it right.”

All-hands Meetings: Bring others along

Radical Candor Persuade

If you have a team of 10 or fewer people, you probably don’t need to schedule a separate meeting to make sure everyone is persuaded that the right decisions have been made. However, as your team gets bigger, you need to start thinking about how to bring everyone along. 

It’s shocking how fast the decisions that some people make start to seem mysterious or even nefarious to people who weren’t close to the process. If your team is 100 or more people, a regular all-hands meeting can really help to get broad buy-in on the decisions being made —  and also to learn about dissent. Silicon Valley is big on company-wide all-hands meetings. 

Apple’s is called Town Hall, Dropbox’s is Whiskey Friday, Google’s is TGIF, Twitter’s is Tea Time. There’s something to be learned from how all-hands meetings are done in Silicon Valley, and why.

These meetings usually include two parts: presentations to persuade people that the company is making good decisions and headed in the right direction, and Q&As conducted so leaders can hear dissent and address it head-on. When handled well, the answers the leaders give to the questions, which are often quite challenging, are usually more persuasive than the presentations.

One of the best all-hands meetings I ever observed was the Friday after Google acquired Keyhole, the company whose technology powered Google Earth. It was fun partly because Larry and Sergey were so exuberant about the acquisition, like kids with a cool new toy. But it was also the best explanation of what they meant by “organize all the world’s information.” 

This wasn’t just about websites and books — they meant, literally, all the world’s information! The excitement in the meeting was palpable.

The presentations typically focus on one or two initiatives that are especially exciting and important. They are meant to inform everyone of broader priorities and to get their buy-in. The presentations are generally done by the team working on the initiative. This practice at Google was important; it built the “persuade” muscle throughout the company. 

Also, people usually loved presenting at these meetings. “Your team wants the stage? Show them the stage!”

Q&A is usually handled by the CEO/founders and allows them to learn what people really think, and so it generally falls to them to answer these often unpleasant, challenging, or awkward questions. The way that these questions get answered is enormously important to persuading a lot of people at once that the right decisions are being made the right way.

I always admired the way Larry Page and Sergey Brin handled Q&As at Google’s TGIF meetings. Larry and Sergey took on all sorts of questions, week after week, and they never used that over-prepped, over-messaged tone that CEOs sometimes fall into. 

Their answers were invariably spontaneous, human, and totally authentic — if occasionally sarcastic. Sometimes the answers were so surprisingly honest that Eric Schmidt would step up

to the microphone and say, “Actually, I think what Sergey (or Larry) really is trying to say is…” Sergey (or Larry) would just grin and shrug. Then at the next TGIF, there they would be again to take tough, awkward questions.

They weren’t yet 30 at the time, but they had instinctively grasped the power of explaining important decisions and encouraging dissent.

Radical Candor 2Nd Edition

 

This post has been excerpted from Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity (get bulk book discounts for teams!). Learn more about the GSD Wheel in chapter 4 of Radical Candor and download our reading guide to test your knowledge of the concepts as you go. Check back soon for the last step in the GSD wheel, Execute. (Read the previous post about making decisions >>)

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Kim Scott is the author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and co-founder of the company Radical Candor. In addition to Radical Candor, she is the author of three novels and the new book Just Work: How To Root Out Bias, Prejudice, and Bullying to Create a Kick-Ass Culture of Inclusion and co-founder of Just Work the company. Kim was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and other tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense, YouTube, and DoubleClick teams at Google. She's also managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo and started a diamond-cutting factory in Moscow. She lives with her family in Silicon Valley.