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Leading Through Persuasion

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The strongest leaders excel at winning people over to their perspective using a thoughtful and deliberate process.

As a leader in your organisation, you have probably had to change a process, launch a new project, or shift resources around at some point. And, more likely than not, you encountered resistance from your team.

Change and adaptability are necessary for companies to thrive—but humans are not wired to be comfortable with change. Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter explains that people tend to feel threatened and experience a loss of control when change is imposed on them.

That’s why persuasion is a critical skill for leaders to master. You will be most effective when you can help others see things as you do and sincerely believe that what you’re proposing will be beneficial to them. It’s not about manipulation or coercion. Rather, it’s about building trust, recognizing barriers to agreement, and intentionally addressing those barriers.

Effective persuasion begins with a degree of empathy. “If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, and speak my words,” said Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero more than two thousand years ago.

If someone within your organisation is putting up resistance, you need to understand how they think and what matters most to them in this situation. Only when you have a good grasp of the why behind their thinking can you hope to influence it.

This requires time and research—and that’s fine, because, according to Harvard Negotiation Research Project director Robert Mnookin, preparation is one of the most foundational pieces of effective persuasion. If you are take the time to understand your own goals and interests, as well as the other person’s interests, then you will be able to make a stronger case to them.

What does the other person want or need? What value can you offer to them? According to Mnookin, “Part of being persuasive is learning how to frame things. It’s not simply changing the conversation so much as thinking through what frame might be most persuasive for the particular audience you're dealing with."

This is where persuasion intersects with strong communication. Experts agree that it’s important to keep your argument simple, to the point, and relevant to what the other person cares about. Sincerity and illustrative stories can also strengthen your case. If you are challenged, don’t get defensive; instead, listen carefully and try to address the issues that have been raised.

Persuading colleagues to buy into your vision takes time and energy, which is why being strategic matters. Start with those who are most ready to be persuaded, or whom you understand most clearly. As your number of supporters increases, it will make it easier for you to persuade those who differ more strongly with you.

At Kenyans Come Home, we’ve recruited numerous leaders into organizations undergoing change or organizations that needed a strong leader to drive the cultural change desired. In our experience, leaders that are successful in leading such processes have mastered the art of persuasion, and begin by winning over the team. When we interviewed Dr. Julius Kipng'etich, Group CEO for Jubilee Insurance about change management, he echoed this approach. “Always begin with who you trust first,” he advised. “Create incentives for them to stay with you. Encourage them to stay the course.”

Finally, persuasion requires persistence. People need time to shift their opinions and perspectives. They may need to hear your reasoning multiple times and in various ways. Your commitment to your perspective will help them take it more seriously.

Effective persuasion is a time-consuming process, and will require practice to be proficient. But putting your best effort toward persuading—not coercing—your colleagues can pay significant dividends. Your organisation will likely produce better results and have a healthier culture if your colleagues are genuinely bought into your leadership and vision.