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‘Increase Your Power by Reducing It’

An Interview with Workplace Dynamics Guru Dan Pink

Pink’s latest book, ‘To Sell is Human,’ may sound unrelated to engagement, but it actually offers a number of useful insights into human nature and what compels us to make the decisions we do

By Allan Schweyer,

If you’re a regular reader of ESM, you’ve no doubt heard of Dan Pink and you’ve probably read at least one or two of his books. After all, Pink’s blockbuster bestsellers, A Whole New Mind and Drive, fall right in the sweet spot for those of us interested in human motivation and what inspires people. Pink’s latest book, To Sell is Human, may sound a little less related to engagement, but it actually offers a number of useful insights into human nature and what compels us to make the decisions we do.

I recently interviewed Dan Pink in front of a part live/part virtual audience of more than 400 people for TMGovU, a new online academy for leaders in the public sector. I wanted to know what’s new about motivation and persuasion today and why.

ESM: Let’s get right to the heart of it. What has changed about persuading and motivating people today?

Pink: In the old days, the typical sales advice was ABC: Always Be Closing. That’s actually not bad advice in a world where buyers don’t have many choices, not much information and no way to talk back. But we don’t live in that world anymore. We live in a world where buyers have as much information as sellers, where buyers have all kinds of choices and where buyers have all kind of ways to talk back. In that world, the social science suggests a new set of ABC’s – the foundational qualities necessary to sell your product, your service, your idea, or yourself on this remade landscape. The new ABCs are: A – Attunement; B – Buoyancy; and C – Clarity.

ESM: OK, so take us through them, starting with Attunement. What does that mean?

Pink: Attunement is perspective-taking. Can you get out of your own head and see things from someone else’s point of view? This is really important because, again, whether we’re persuading prospects and customers or whether we’re persuading people on the job, we don’t have much coercive power today. It’s hard to command people to do things. So you’ll be far more effective when you’re able to take the other person’s perspective and find common ground.

One intriguing consequence of this line of research is that you increase your power by reducing it. What I mean by that is that when people feel powerful, they’re less likely to take others’ perspectives. The research shows pretty clearly that feelings of power have the effect of degrading your perspective-taking power, that there is essentially an inverse correlation between feelings of power and perspective-taking. The reason for that is pretty clear. If I’m powerful and I’m dealing with people who aren’t powerful, why should I take their point of view? If they were as awesome as me, they’d be the ones in power. But the problem with that is that when people feel powerful and they lose their perspective-taking ability, they’re actually less effective. One big reason that people quit jobs is that they have a boss who never takes their perspective. And one thing that you can do to get better at this is to increase your power by reducing it. Let me make this a little bit more concrete, so let’s say that I was your boss. Let’s say that I’m your boss and I want you to do something different or I want you to do something in a different way. Do you think you would do it even if you don’t think it’s such a good idea?

ESM: Yes, I probably would, since you’re the boss.

Pink: Right, I think most of us would. I’m not asking you to do anything unethical or illegal or anything like that. You might think, “Oh, God, what a stupid idea.” But you go about doing it grudgingly. Unfortunately, the odds are that you’re not going to do a wonderful job on that task. So what I should do as your boss is use the evidence from social science – which shows an inverse relationship between feelings of power and perspective-taking – to do things a little bit better. So here’s what I could do. Before I go into my encounter with you, I slightly recalibrate my notions of power. Before I talk to you, I say, “Listen. Even though I’m Allan’s boss, even though I’m higher in the org chart, even though he reports to me, even though I make more money than he does, maybe I’m not as powerful as I think I am. In fact, maybe my ability as a boss to get my job done, to get my goals accomplished, really depends heavily on Allan being pretty committed and engaged. The more I think about this, Allan’s actually quite good. Maybe, at some level, he needs us a lot less than we need him. And so what I do is I recalibrate my feelings of power in that moment. I don’t give up my title, I don’t give my salary back or anything like that. I just recalibrate in that moment the feeling of relative power.

What happens? If I reduce my feelings of power – remember, there’s an inverse relationship between feelings of power and perspective-taking – I increase my perspective-taking skills. What happens then? Maybe, if I do that, I can get better at taking Allan’s perspective. I can say, “Hmmm, why is Allan resisting this? Maybe there’s an obstacle that he sees and I’m the boss, I can just get that out of the way.” Maybe, if I really work hard, I can say, “What’s in it for Allan to do this thing differently or do this thing in a different way?” And so this is a really interesting practical and tactical thing that leaders can do. It’s a little counterintuitive, but if you decrease your feelings of power in that moment, you can increase the acuity of your perspective-taking and actually be more effective.

ESM: So this falls into the area of empathizing with people?

Pink: There’s an interesting line of research in this – something just published in the Harvard Business Review online about three weeks ago showing that when people feel powerful, you know what they do? They talk too much. And when you talk too much, the people you’re talking to are less likely to do a good and thorough job on what you’re asking them to do because you’re not listening to them.

It’s also interesting that the research distinguishes between perspective-taking and empathy. They’re very closely related; they’re like siblings, but they’re not identical twins. Empathy helps you understand someone’s emotional state. It’s an enormously important skill in the workplace and as a human being. But in terms of persuasion, particularly in a business or commercial context, the perspective-taking that I’m talking about is very much about understanding someone’s interest, understanding their thoughts. What’s in it for them? So you want to be empathetic, you want to understand someone’s feelings, but in a business context. Attunement is really about their interests and what’s in it for them.

ESM: I loved your story about the last Fuller Brush Man – which I think represents the B - Buoyancy, brilliantly.

Pink: Well, I did manage to find one of the last Fuller Brush men working today; his name is Norman Hall. He said something that really stuck with me, something I think we can all relate to whether we’re in sales or we persuade or whether we’re scared about doing those things, and it’s this. He said, “Dan, the hardest part of my job is that every day I face” – and this is his lovely phrase – he says, “I face an ocean of rejection.” Buoyancy is how you stay afloat in that ocean of rejection. We probably have a relatively small number of people who are full-time salespeople listening and watching today. But I think that those people who do sell every day are far more courageous than most of us. Salespeople go out there and deal with rejection every single day. In sales, and even when persuading, we’re all staring into that ocean of rejection.

So what do the social sciences teach us about how to be Buoyant, how to stay afloat in that ocean of rejection? There are a couple of things that people can do. One of them is talking to yourself before an encounter. And the research shows that pumping yourself up with positive self-talk is much better than doing nothing – than simply going in neutral and not saying anything to yourself. But it’s not as effective as a third option, one that most of us have never heard of, and that’s “interrogative” self-talk. You take that positive affirmative statement and you turn it into a question. So you’re probably thinking: “I should question my ability?” And the answer is yes, in many cases you should.

Questions, by their very nature, elicit an active response. Your wheels have to turn a little bit. If you ask yourself a question, your own wheels turns a little bit. By asking that question to myself – “Can you do this?” – I have to respond “Yeah, I can do this,” and then I list the reasons why. “I can do this because…”  I’m preparing. I’m rehearsing. I’m getting ready. And so this thing that seems powerful: “You can do it, you’ve got it,” is good – it’s better than doing nothing – but it’s not nearly as effective as the quieter kind of Buoyancy that comes from questions.

ESM: You use a famous story to illustrate C – Clarity.

Pink: Yes, Clarity depends on contrast. This is a really important point from the great Robert Cialdini who is, by far, the most important researcher in the field of influence and persuasion. He talks about something he calls the “contrast principle.” When you want to persuade people, you want them to ask this question: “compared to what?” They have to compare it to something.

So the story is about a blind man sitting on a sidewalk in a big city with people passing by. It’s a beautiful spring day and he has a sign that says, “I am blind.” But his hat is almost empty, few people notice him or stop. Then a well known ad man passes by and sees the sign and says, “I can add four words to that sign and you’ll be able to raise a lot more money.” And the four words he adds are: “It is springtime and…” So having a sign that says, “I am blind,” may not be enough. People are empathetic to that in many cases, but it doesn’t go far enough in persuading them because it doesn’t trigger the “compared to what?” question. But if you change it to: “It is springtime and I am blind” it triggers the “compared to what?” mechanism. It makes the “I am blind” contrast with your own experience. “Wow, wait a second! Here I am, on this beautiful spring day and I’m seeing all the glorious flowers and the trees blooming and the sun shining and people strolling through the park, and this person can’t see that.”

And so one of the things you want to do in persuasion – again building on Cialdini’s work – is you want to emphasize that contrast principle. You want to trigger the question “Compared to what?” Say you’re in a clothing store and the sales rep asks, “Do you like this tie?” and you might say, “Yeah, I like that.” But that’s not as persuasive as saying, “Let me show you two ties or three ties. Which do you like the best?” So they can compare them more easily. We don’t use this contrast principle enough. In your persuasive efforts, what you want to do is build in that “compared to what?” question.

This connects to another important point in Clarity. We tend to always want to give people a lot of choices, but when you do you’re sometimes less persuasive, partly because the “Compared to what?” question goes haywire. People get overwhelmed. So there’s some evidence showing that sometimes, if you restrict people’s choices, you can become more persuasive, even though our instincts always are to say, “Oh, whatever you want, we have 800 colors, all these different sizes.”

ESM: OK, final question. Of all the things you talked about, what is the most important element to work on if you’re hoping to improve your ability to persuade and influence?

Pink: About 40 years ago, there was a management writer named Robert Greenleaf who wrote about a concept he called “servant leadership.” It’s a phrase many of us have heard of. What he said is that leaders must turn the pyramid upside down, essentially. He said leaders aren’t at the top of the pyramid, they’re at the bottom – that leaders serve first and lead next, that serving others gives them the moral legitimacy to lead. Servant leadership is a quieter form of power. If you look at the people who are the most effective leaders, many of them see themselves as servants first, and that serving others gives them the legitimacy to lead.

I think where we are in selling and persuading is very similar. What you should do is serve first and then sell next – the act of service gives you the legitimacy to sell. And when I say service, I don’t mean customer service necessarily. When you put yourself in a position to persuade somebody, to influence somebody, get out of your own head and think about what you can do to serve their interests. If they consent to what you’re doing, if they consent to what you’re asking them to do, how does that make their life better and how does that make the world better? If you focus on those two questions, then I think you actually don’t even need to sell it at some level. You serve first and then sell, persuade, influence next. Putting yourself in the position of others, saying, “What can I do to make their life better?” actually makes you among the most persuasive and convincing people around.

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