Why don’t they get it? Sometimes, when you care passionately about something and know you’re right (the need for overseas expansion, the importance of bringing in an outside consultant), it can be downright painful to sit back while your colleagues debate the obvious, dither about decision-making, and otherwise miss the point. It’s tempting to force the issue; after all, they’ll surely thank you later, when your wisdom is validated in hindsight. But even if your certitude is warranted, you may want to think twice before applying more pressure or turning up the volume: it’s remarkably easy to hurt your own cause.
Here are five traps even the best of us can fall into:
Painting a black-and-white scenario. My friend Diana McLain Smith, author of The Elephant in the Room: How Relationships Make or Break the Success of Leaders and Organizations, recalls one executive who was the head of a fast-growing subsidiary at a major corporation. He developed a plan to reach a growing market segment, which he billed to his colleagues as “obviously compelling” and the only way to save the company from a “dying past.” Recalls McLain Smith, “His juxtaposition of competing views — which idealized his approach and demonized the other — alienated everyone, especially since he demonstrated little understanding of other people’s point of view and denigrated any views that supported the current business.” Despite the merits of his strategy, he was soon forced out. Too often, we assume we can “scare” people into listening to us. But painting the worst-case scenario and ignoring the merits of others’ perspectives only makes us look like extremists.
Offering your opinion when it hasn’t been requested. I recently returned from a trip to Cuba — long off-limits to most Americans, but newly accessible thanks to federal policy changes made last year. Eavesdropping on my phone call home as we waited in the security line, the man behind me (who had fled Cuba decades before) decided he needed to lecture me about the evils of the Castro regime. He could have attempted to start a conversation; instead, he launched into a harangue — which I immediately tuned out because I never asked to hear it. Think about how you can positively engage your listener and get them to seek out (or even just listen to) your opinion.
Assuming you already know others’ viewpoint. Do you actually understand your colleagues’ viewpoint — or do you just assume you do? If my new airport friend had bothered to ask me, he would’ve learned that I was traveling to Cuba with a Chamber of Commerce — probably something closer to a capitalist agent than, as he’d clearly assumed, a red sympathizer who needed to be re-educated. His unnecessary vehemence (directed toward someone who likely shared many of his views) made him look like a fanatic, rather than a credible source of information.
Making it ad hominem. Good businesses — and executives — thrive on dissenting perspectives. But there’s a big difference between disagreeing on policy and attacking someone personally. As a self-proclaimed feminist — and even a NOW intern during my college days — I was awfully surprised when a Forbes blog I wrote about new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer prompted one friend to declare me, on my Facebook wall, “sexist and misogynist” for noting in the article that Mayer was attractive. Far more effective was my friend Sarah’s tactic, which praised the article but noted “one quibble” with mentioning Mayer’s looks, and gently suggested a documentary film I could watch about women, body image, and the media. Whether your goal is feminist re-education or advancing a particular corporate strategy, you get further with honey than vinegar.
Launching into your script. We all have passions. Alumni can’t shut up about their alma mater. Red Sox fans won’t stop talking about changes to the pitching rotation or who should bat cleanup. And an innocent meal with a foodie can become an interminable exposition concerning the virtues of locally-sourced leeks and heirloom tomatoes. For the people who love you, it’s a cute quirk. For those at a greater remove, it’s enough to make them want to avoid you. Enthusiasm is great — but not when you can’t control yourself. By all means, speak up about your cause, but you have to know when you’re going too far.
It’s easy to get overexcited when you really believe a new product should be launched, or your protégé should be promoted, or your company should acquire a certain firm. You may wonder why other people aren’t getting it, or why they’re so lumbering and bureaucratic. But often, it’s because, in the heat of passion, we simply can’t see what they’re perceiving. And the more worked up we get about it, unfortunately, the more we drive other people away. If you really care about an idea or cause, sometimes the best thing you can do is calm down and wait to engage strategically.
What are your techniques for persuading others in the workplace? Are there times when you (or others) have inadvertently hurt your own cause?
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on September 19, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.