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The topsy-turvy logic of leadership self-deception

You feel sure that your boss is mistaken about something, so why is it so difficult to change his or her mind? It seems that changing one’s mind is something that does not come readily to our species. What’s more social psychologists have recently uncovered a phenomenon that suggests that people’s minds might be even tougher to change than we thought.

Have you noticed how presenting a fact-based business case, can prove counter productive? This can be explained by the ‘back-fire’ effect. It works like this… when presented with a case with which they don’t readily agree, people see it as an invitation to construct the opposite case and counter the arguments that they hear. This means the person to whom we are presenting our case often ends up being further away from our opinion rather than closer. You may also be familiar with ‘confirmation bias’… people pay excessive attention to evidence that supports their point of view but discount that which doesn’t.

But might it go further? It makes sense that we believe in a theory because we consider it to be true, but could it work the other way round? In other words, we believe something to be true because it’s our theory: If it’s what I believe then it must be the case.

Aiden Greigg and colleagues from the University of Southampton set out to test this. They created an imaginary far-off planet, inhabited by two species, Niffites and Luppites, Participants were asked them to imagine themselves as an inhabitant of this planet who held a specific theory about Niffites and Luppites – That Niffites are predators and Luppites are prey. Participants are then asked to assess the extent to which a series of statements about Niffites and Luppites are either consistent or inconsistent with the theory that they hold. These statements are designed to be objectively consistent or inconsistent with the theory that Niffites are predators and Luppites are prey. When participants imagine that they already hold to this theory, they do a remarkably poor job of assessing the extent to which statements are consistent or inconsistent with it.

On the other hand, when required to imagine it is not they, but somebody else on the planet, who holds the view, their ability to assess objectively the extent to which the statements are consistent with the theory increases dramatically. In other words, when we already hold to a theory, our ability to assess potential evidence against it is significantly impaired.

If your boss has a theory, presenting evidence that challenges the theory is likely to be ineffective. So how do we convince somebody of something, when they are already in the grip of a theory that runs counter to what we are trying to convince them of? Well… the most effective influencers learn to position their point of view as an extension of the theory that the person already holds. Get alongside the other person’s theory, rather than challenge it head on, and then nudge gently in the direction that you want to go. As we point out to people on our Advanced Influencing courses, a cowboy does not stop a stampede of cattle by meeting them head on. It’s about riding alongside and then making a difference.