How To Change (Almost) Anyone’s Mind

HBR: How To Change Anyone’s Mind by Adam Grant

In these days of disruptive change and raging conspiracy theories, the leadership challenge of changing people’s minds is central. While it is therefore welcome to see Harvard Business Review (HBR) highlighting its article entitled, “How To Change Anyone’s Mind,” yet like most business articles on persuasion, the article offers limited guidance on how exactly to do that. If we really want to change people’s minds, we need a deeper understanding of the dynamics of persuasion, and the use of additional tools, such as leadership storytelling.

The HBR article gives us four anecdotes about a single individual—the late Steve Jobs—who is presented as the quintessence of someone who is hard to persuade—a stubborn, disagreeable, know-it-all, over-confident narcissist. True, Steve Jobs was all of those things and more. But the article fails to mention that Steve Jobs was also a brilliant entrepreneur who exemplified the innovative spirit and who was constantly searching for better ways of achieving the world-class performance that he so passionately desired. In the process of devising these products, Jobs was notorious for changing his mind many, many times, as the article itself notes. Yes, he was stubborn, but stubborn in the cause of achieving higher performance. Yes, he could be disagreeable and even contemptuous in his dealings with people, but usually with those whom he perceived as not sharing his high standards of performance.

The HBR article, written by Adam Grant, the esteemed psychologist at the Wharton School, consists principally of four anecdotes in which Steve Jobs was persuaded to do certain things another way, i.e. (a) how to strengthen the iPhone’s glass screen; (b) how to improve Apple’s software; (c) how to deal with the digital networks, and (d) how to listen to music other than through a laptop computer.


The techniques used by the communicators in each case were: (a) to let Jobs explain his idea first; (b) to flatter Jobs in another area; (c) to appeal to Jobs’ fighting spirit; and (d) to keep asking questions. Note that in each case, the actual persuasion was accomplished by the provision of information. That worked because Jobs passionately wanted the same thing as the communicators—to make better Apple products. The anecdotes are less about the means of persuasion and more about getting Jobs’ attention. In each case, once the persuader had Jobs’ attention, Jobs himself used the information provided and did the hard work of evaluating and changing his own mind.

Thus, the provision of information can be an effective tool for persuasion when the listener already basically agrees with us on the goal and we have the listener’s attention. However, the more common and important challenge of persuasion concerns the case of people who basically don’t agree with us. For such people, the provision of information is not only ineffective: it is usually counter-productive. Every word we are saying is driving the listener deeper and deeper into opposition to our point of view.

That’s because of a phenomenon known as the confirmation bias—the tendency of human beings to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports their prior beliefs or values. The confirmation bias, a phrase coined by English psychologist Peter Wason, has been intensively studied by psychologists. Many experiments have shown that it exists across cultures and areas of expertise. It has resulted in flawed decisions in fields such as politics, organizations, finance, and science. The bias thus not only contributes to overconfidence in unreliable personal beliefs in the face of contrary evidence; it can even strengthen those beliefs.

The confirmation bias is in fact the principal challenge of persuasion and the reason why most efforts at persuasion fail, precisely because the standard way of communicating in the Western intellectual tradition is the provision of information—describe a problem, analyze it, and offer a solution based on the analysis. That sounds logical. And it is. But logic rarely works with audiences who fundamentally disagree with us.

To have any chance of success in persuading such audiences, we need to approach the challenge differently: we need to inspire the listeners to think differently, even before we give them the reasons for doing so. Storytelling is not the only tool that inspires, as shown in Figure 1. But leadership storytelling is among the most effective of the tools that actually work.

Figure 1

Tools for changing minds: inspiration, information and intimidation

Storytelling is of course not new. It is one of the age-old basics of the human race. Narrative is in a sense our native language. It is the language we naturally feel more comfortable in. If we look at the great leaders throughout history who have won hearts and changed minds, we find that they often resorted to storytelling. It explains for instance how the American politician, Al Gore, went from losing the 2000 presidential election, precisely because he was so annoyingly boring, to become, just a few years later, an exciting persuader on the difficult issue of climate change. In the process, he won an Emmy, an Oscar, and even the Nobel Peace Prize. How come? Al Gore had learned how to tell engaging stories that inspired people to want to change. How did Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama become national leaders? A big part of it lay in their ability to tell effective leadership stories.

While storytelling is as old as the human race, its importance in organizational change is often overlooked.

The first thing to learn about leadership storytelling is that most stories don’t change our minds or spark an intent to act differently. Stories naturally enable us to get inside the mind of another human being. Stories expand our understanding of other people. Stories give us vicarious experience that we can obtain in no other way. These stories “in the wild” are inherently stimulating and naturally life-enhancing. But if we think back to all the millions of stories that we have heard in our lives, we will see that very few have changed our minds or our behavior.

We now know that the stories that do change minds and spark different behavior tend to have a particular narrative pattern. The key to leadership storytelling is to master this narrative pattern. Once we understand this pattern and know how to put it into practice, we can reproduce effective change-inducing stories, whatever the situation we are in, whether your listener is a boss, a subordinate, a colleague, a customer, or a family member.

There are many nuances to the narrative pattern, but the key elements of successful leadership storytelling to inspire change are the following:

· The story is about an individual with whom the listener can identify, so that the listener not only listens, but lives the story.

· The story is about the very problem on which the communicator hopes to inspire different action.

· The story is about someone who solved the problem, and is thus positive in tone; although negative stories are useful for getting attention, stories must be positive in tone if we want to inspire action.

· The story is not a story about the future; it is about something that actually happened and so is authentically true; when listeners go and check it out—as they will do—they will find that the story actually happened, and hence is credible.

· Unlike an entertainment story, the leadership story is told briefly in a minimalist form, with only those details that are necessary to understand the story, so that there is plenty of space for “the little voice” in the listener’s mind to imagine a future story in which the listener is now the protagonist, i.e. “What if I were to ….?” The trick is that the listener creates the future story, not the leader; as a result, the future story thus imagined is perfectly adapted to the listener’s own setting.

· The story, in the space of a few words, contrasts the situation before the change idea and the situation after the change idea is implemented.

· The story is told with conviction, even passion, as though this is the most important thing in the world; it is the leader’s intensity that is doing much of the work of persuasion.

· The story should be told by someone whom the listener trusts, or at least someone who is not actively distrusted; if the storyteller is personally distrusted, the leader may need to find someone else to tell the story. .

When these characteristics are met, experience shows that the story has a good chance of changing minds, even people who fundamentally disagree with us.

Leadership storytelling doesn’t always work. While recognizing the power of storytelling, we also need to recognize its limits. Not everyone can or will change their mind. Some people will go to their grave stubbornly adhering to the same wrong-headed view, no matter what we do. One hundred percent success in the field of persuasion simply isn’t attainable.

For this reason, the title of the latest HBR article, “How To Change Anyone’s Mind” is seriously misleading. It is not possible to change anyone’s mind. Yet leadership storytelling, when done right, at least gives us a fighting chance of success.

Why storytelling? The pragmatic answer given above is that almost nothing else works. A more scientific answer can be found in Brian Boyd’s wonderful book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, (Harvard University Press, 2009)

For Boyd, story is “a thing that does” rather than “a thing that is”. It is a tool with measurable utility, not just an object for aesthetic admiration. Attention is the early reward that listeners bestow on the storyteller. Sustained change in behavior can be the final prize.

In retrospect, the 20th century can be seen as a giant experiment by the human race to find out what could be accomplished if organizations treated people as things and communicated to them in abstractions, numbers, and analysis, rather than through people-friendly communications such as stories.

Employees became “human resources” to be mined, rather than people to be minded. Customers became “demand”, or “consumers” or “eyeballs”, to be manipulated, rather than living, feeling human beings to be delighted. Storytelling was only one of many elements that suffered collateral damage.

The whole experiment can be seen as a success to the extent that the material standard of living of a proportion of the world’s population for a time improved. But the experiment was an abysmal failure in most other respects. It made people miserable. And organizations steadily became less and less productive, as the need for innovation grew.

In any event, the effort to suppress storytelling was unsuccessful: storytelling, though disrespected, lived on in the cracks and crevices of society—in the cafeterias, the corridors, around water-coolers, in bars and restaurants, living rooms and bedrooms. Throughout the 20th century, storytelling got little respect, but it could not be suppressed. It turned out to be a central characteristic of being human.

Today the ongoing reinvention of management to transform workplaces from the boring, sterile, dispiriting cubicles of the 20th century into the lively centers of inspiration and creativity that are needed for the creative economy of the 21st century necessitates the elevation of leadership storytelling to the central place in leadership that it deserves.

And read also:

Why Leadership Storytelling Is Important

The Science Of Storytelling

My book, “The Age of Agile” was published by HarperCollins in 2018 and was selected by the Financial Times as one of the best business books of 2018. I consult with