Subtle persuasion beats commands every time

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 June, 1993, 12:00am

AS THE founder and CEO of a company, I have always thought that I could get anything to happen at our company if I wanted it to happen. No matter how foolish or whimsical my personal decision may be, I could push it through the organisation simply by dictating that it be done.

In theory, like any boss, all I would have to say is, ''Do it!'' But I don't.

For one thing, barking commands is not my idea of fun. It not only wears down the people being barked at, it wears down the person doing the barking. It is also a tough act to keep going over the long term. After so many edicts and tirades, people eventually tune you out.

Demanding and dictating also defeats one of the main goals of a manager - namely, getting people to support an idea that they will have to execute without you. If you tell people to do something that they really don't want to do, they always harbour somedegree of resentment, a feeling of ''we'll show the boss how wrong he is''.

The most compelling reason that I don't say ''Do it!'' that often, though, is the simple fact that I have other, subtle forms of persuasion that are more effective. Here are four favourites: Casual persuasion.

If you have a good idea, you can usually improve its chances of survival by convincing someone else that it's their idea as well. Casual persuasion is the act of dropping an idea in someone's lap and then helping them notice it.

Quite often, if I have an idea that I want one of our executives to implement, I will casually mention it in a conversation. I don't flaunt it by saying, ''Here's a great idea!'' I simply muse out loud in the hope that an alert listener might pick up on it.

If the employee doesn't get back to me in a week or two, I'll casually bring it up again the next time we talk. Chances are, he'll have forgotten about it. He might say: ''Gee, I didn't realise you were serious.'' Then we'll move on to another subject.

A few days later I might send him a memo with additional thoughts that relates to the idea. After a few weeks of this soft but relentless prodding, even the most unresponsive employee will get the hint that I want something to happen. But I haven't pounded the idea into him. I've given him several weeks to let the idea slowly soak in. When the employee actually brings the concept to life, he invariably thinks it's his idea. I see no reason to disagree.

Textbook persuasion.

Textbook persuasion means teaching or showing people how to do things your way.

I wasn't aware I did this until someone pointed it out to me. I was having an informal lunch with a small group of employees at a golf tournament. One of them mentioned a contract he was negotiating in the Far East.

The lawyer in me came to the fore and I started peppering him with questions about the contract.

That was my not-so-subtle method to persuade him to do it my way. If he hadn't considered all those nuggets before that lunch, I'm sure he would thereafter.

In hindsight, this instructive urge has probably been my favourite form of persuasion. In the 1970s and 1980s, when I wasn't sure that all the new executives in our growing company were negotiating contracts or servicing clients or selling certain properties in the corporation's way, I gave regular lectures on those specific subjects.

Third-party persuasion.

I've always tried to hire people smarter than I am. In our company, dozens of people are smarter in their area of expertise than I'll ever be.

That's a foolproof hiring policy, but it also presents a management problem - particularly when you're trying to persuade the expert to accept your idea in his area of expertise. That's when it's prudent to use a third party.

If I have the great idea for a television programme, I might suggest it to the head of our television unit. Of course, I am not a programming wizard, and that colours how my suggestion is perceived. The idea would probably get a far better reception if it came from a third party, from someone our television head respected as an expert in broadcasting.

If you don't have the credibility to keep a good idea moving, find a third party who does.

Deadline persuasion.

Giving people deadlines to do something is one step shy of saying, ''Do it!'' It's not very subtle, but it's persuasive.

There will always be situations where you don't have the luxury or time to (a) let an idea seep slowly into a person's mind, or (b) instruct an employee, or (c) find a third party to deliver your message. That's when I resort to deadlines.If you can't persuade people on the merits of a concept, you can usually do it by stressing its urgency.