The Subtle Art of Persuasion

How do you go about convincing a boss, colleague or stakeholder that there is another way? The subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) art of persuasion is an important skill to build to ensure that the loudest voice is not the only choice.

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Adam Grant writes about Steve Jobs, a man legendary for his genius and for how difficult it was to influence him. The main thesis of this really excellent article is that “much of Apple’s success came from his team’s pushing him to rethink his positions. If Jobs hadn’t surrounded himself with people who knew how to change his mind, he might not have changed the world.

Persuasion has been a successful topic for business writers and there are numerous books available on the topic. Jobs however was notoriously difficult to influence and Grant tracked down and spoke to some of the people who helped open his mind to new opportunities.

People adept at influence are able to sense or anticipate their audience’s reaction to their message and are able to use this information to effectively carry everyone along towards an intended goal.

David Owasi (Medium, September 2020)

There are three important learnings in this case study

Influencing those who think they already know

How to address someone who is ‘technically arrogant’ or superior. Convincing someone who believes they already know everything they need to know on the topic is very hard. A study published in 2010 identified that people often feel they understand very complex ideas with much greater comprehension than they do in reality. It is not until you actually ask the person to explain how it works step by step that the actual depth of understanding and knowledge is exposed (both to you and to them).

Influencing a stubborn leader

It is very hard to influence a stubborn person’s opinions. Once the opinion is formed it appears to set like concrete and no matter the contrary view or the data that the informed position holds.

So how do you go about finding a way to change those minds and to reshape that concrete? Grant writes about a study of screenwriters in Hollywood where the most successful would find a way to pitch a new and different idea was to engage them in the idea formulation process.

By asking open questions that ignite the imagination, you move away from confrontation, soften defences and engage the leader in considering the possibilities.

Intractable people see consistency and certainty as virtues

Adam Grant – Persuading the Unpersuadable (HBR, March 2021)

The narcissist leader

Narcissists crave status and approval and become hostile when their fragile egos are threatened—when they’re insulted, rejected, or shamed. So it is important to consider how to structure any feedback.

In his article Grant recounts how Steve Jobs was given what might appear to be harsh feedback, wrapped in a ‘back handed compliment’. At the 1997 Apple Developer Conference one audience member criticised Jobs saying “It’s sad and clear that on several counts you’ve discussed, you don’t know what you’re talking about”. What is amazing is that did not get a negative response and that was probably because he started his remark with a compliment “Mr. Jobs, you’re a bright and influential man.” As the audience laughed, Jobs replied, “Here it comes.”

The lesson in this is how the praise was given, it is most effective to offer the praise in a different area from the one you are hoping to influence.

Overcoming the disagreeable

Disagreeable people love the battle. They actually seek out conflict to build energy so they are going to argue, challenge and debate. They are unlikely to bend quickly or easily – so how do you overcome the challenge?

Firstly settle in for a journey this is going to take time, and secondly build a team that are aligned to help champion the cause. A study in 2010 considered a large sample of executives and CEO’s at Forbes 500 companies found that flattery and ingratiation were more likely to result in promotion or senior appointments. They also found that these successful individuals were also more likely to have been more adversarial in their relationships with their bosses. It followed that having the strength and courage to debate the difficult topics, fight for ideals and be willing to change their own minds were amongst the most sought after capabilities.

Art Markham (a psychology professor at the University of Texas) also writes about building a coalition of supporters when facing opposition at senior levels. It is often more palatable for decision makers to change position if there is a ground swell of support.

Markham suggests three steps

  1. Consider Social Reality
  2. Create Coherence
  3. Build the Path

Social Reality

When you want a message to resonate strongly it is easier when you have already planted the right seeds. By using your colleagues to repeat the key messages, your intended decision maker is getting the position reinforced from multiple sources. This methodology was documented in a study by Solomon Asch in the 1950s who found that “dominant response of the members of a group could even make people respond to questions consistent with the group, rather than consistent with what people saw for themselves”.


When the concept also reinforces our existing beliefs it is much more likely to be compelling. The power of storytelling takes advantage of bringing together this coherence of held and acknowledged topics to position the area you are looking for agreement or endorsement on.

“Craft a story in which your idea connects with this other information in a reasonable way. That way, after you tell the story, all of these other elements that are already part of your boss’s web of beliefs will reinforce the belief in your idea.”

Art Markham (Fast Company, July 2020)

The Path

Positioning an idea so that the decision maker thinks they came up with it themselves. By building the backstory and leading towards the endpoint of the information but not the critical decision.

At this point the decision maker has heard a number of opinions on the topic already that guide them to this position.

They feel that the logical decision is in line with decisions that they have made previously and their beliefs

They believe that they came up with this way forward and as such are owning the outcome.

Key Takeaways

  • The art of persuasion is a set of capabilities you can build that can influence how convincing your argument is to a specific decision maker.
  • Every decision maker is different, the scenarios listed here give you some ways to help ensure your argument or position is properly considered
  • Recognise that proper planning enables you to have the best chance to position the message in way that the decision maker is likely to be receptive.
DIGEST of articles from HBR
Persuading the Unpersuadable
by Adam Grant
Published: March 2021

and from Medium
The Subtle Art of Persuasion and Influence
by David Owasi
Published: 1st September 2020 

and from Fast Company
3 Science-backed methods for convincing your boss of something
by Art Markman
Published: 13th July 2020

Leave a Reply