The Power of Persuasion: Cognitive Flexibility

Three Ways to Be More Persuasive

What I love about being a Leadership Coach is that I get to work with some really incredible people who have an amazing depth of wisdom. They rely on their knowledge, skills, experience, and intuition, and it serves them well. However, they will also be the first to tell you that there have been times when they regret rejecting the opinions and ideas of others in favor of their own, let’s just say, unwise ideas.

When I ask them why that is, some of these wise leaders point to blind spots, or hidden bias. Others admit to being too confident in their expertise: they chose (consciously or unconsciously) not to listen to others and held fast to what they believed to be true. Sound familiar?

It’s all quite common. After all, their expertise often catapults them to where they are today. However, have you noticed how truly great leaders have the wisdom and courage to question their own convictions?

“In a turbulent world, success depends not just on cognitive horsepower but also on cognitive flexibility. When leaders lack the wisdom to question their convictions, followers need the courage to persuade them to change their minds.” – Organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, PhD

They do this with three key tactics:

  1. Accept that everyone has limits, including you.
  2. Surround yourself with a diversity of experts and empower them to ethically and courageously persuade you.
  3. Practice flexibility, collaboration, and compromise.

Sounds simple enough, but…why don’t we “just do it?”

Why We Believe Everything We Think

First, it’s easy to forget that we don’t know what we don’t know. Add to that how facts quickly change, either through new data, discoveries, or perspectives, and what was once right may be outdated.

Second, as leaders it’s our job to persuade others to follow us—our vision, our strategy, and our plans, even if there is a better way (or we are wrong!) Changing how we see ourselves can feel threatening.

Third, we are hard-wired to conserve mental energy. We learn something, and move on. In today’s highly competitive and fast-paced world, there is no time for second-guessing ourselves. As Adam Grant, PhD, writes in Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (Viking, 2021), “questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable.”

Finally (or for now), we—including those around us—often don’t know how to use persuasion effectively. One solution to believing everything we think is to practice ethical persuasion. I’ll dive in to this in another post.

In the meantime, in what ways do you harness the power of cognitive flexibility?

In a turbulent world it’s difficult to see and hear ourselves clearly and question our convictions. If you long for greater influence but are struggling because you don’t think you fit the mold, let’s explore ways for you to navigate your leadership path from the strength of who you are.