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Alfred Nobel amassed his fortune by producing explosives and invented dynamite. When Nobel's brother died, a newspaper ran a long obituary of Alfred Nobel, believing that it was he who had passed away.

So Nobel had an opportunity granted to few people: he read his obituary while alive. What he read horrified him: the newspaper described him as a man who had made it possible to kill more people more quickly than anyone else who had ever lived.

At that moment, Nobel changed his mind. He realized that this was not how he wanted to be remembered. Instead he decided to devote his fortune to establishing the Nobel peace awards.

This month Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund also publicly changed his mind. Or did he? When the suggestion of a tax on financial transactions was floated at a recent meeting of the G20 nations, Strauss poured cold water on the whole idea.

Yet now Strauss-Kahn has backtracked, promising to look at the pros and cons of the tax. So what happened?  The cynical interpretation is that the IMF’s MD was faced with serious opposition from senior international political figures. He therefore caved in and agreed that, after all, it was worth looking at.

A more charitable and possibly human view is that Mr Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a highly confident individual who still feels the tax as unworkable. Yet he now realises the circumstances have altered and he therefore needs to do things differently, notably to be seen to investigate the possibilities more fully.

Changing your mind is a very human activity. We all do it all the time and it’s partly what helps us survive and ensure our species remains highly adaptable. There is often fact a fine line between stubbornness and flexibility.

When Margaret Thatcher memorably declared “The Lady’s not for Turning” she was boasting that she held her views through thick and thin.

But her inability to change her mind over the poll tax almost certainly helped trigger her downfall.

In HR we need a solid understanding of this phenomenon of what changes people’s minds or why they don’t. We realise from personal experience that often it can be extraordinary difficult to change our own minds, let alone someone else’s.

You may know it is important for the future of the organisation that a new way of thinking or behaving starts happening. Yet history shows that change initiatives–realignment, restructuring, re-engineering and the rest–succeed only one time out of every four.

So what is the best approach where a change of mind is needed? 

Suppose for example, you really believe that your Chief Executive is wrong about some aspects of running your organisation. It could be the company’s response to climate change, its attitude towards customers, its handling of diversity, or how best to get staff to perform better or differently. What an earth do you do about it?

Cognitive dissonance

First up in the change stakes is what psychologists term cognitive dissonance. Essentially this describes the discomfort we feel when faced with two contradictory facts or ideas. If you believe the organisation you work for is fundamentally good for example, and yet it does something bad you will probably experience cognitive dissonance.

People’s reaction to cognitive difference is to try and resolve the internal conflict by choosing one or other of the two conflicting idea. More commonly we try to rationalise the difference.

In the choice between changing one's mind and proving there's no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof. That is they start messing with the facts. This includes ignoring them if they contradict current thinking, or suggesting the facts are simply wrong.

Right now take climate change. Here is something on which 95% or more of scientists agree is serious and a result of human activity. If you refuse to believe in it then naturally you will do everything possible to look for or hold onto contrary evidence.

Since inevitably there will nearly always be some contrary evidence that makes your job of holding onto your beliefs a lot easier. Just watch how the recent furore over the publication of hundreds of e-mails sent by the University of East Anglia in its climate research unit will be used to try to undermine the overwhelming prevailing internationally agreed evidence.

Much the same happens in companies. For instance, the facts about the connection between engaging talent and individual and corporate performance are now fairly overwhelming. Just glance through the recent Engaging for Success report for a dose of this evidence. 

To turn cognitive dissonance to your advantage means finding ways to create discomfort in the minds of those whose views or opinions you want to affect. Often all you need do is feed in facts that contradict their present view of the world. At other times it means hammering away at the conflict between how they see things and the evidence that seems to undermine it.

Allow Time

The existence of overwhelming evidence does not necessarily mean that hundreds of people will instantly become converts to it.  

For example, CEOs or senior managers will not necessarily suddenly become enamoured with new work practices such as we outline in our latest report: Talent Engagement, How to Unlock People’s Potential. (Shortly available on-line or direct from Maynard Leigh).–see

Inevitably it will take time for the facts and evidence to sink in, allowing people to get used to new thinking and new ways of behaving, gradually in fact becoming ready to change their mind.

This is the second essential requirement for achieving change. You need to allow people time to adjust their thinking, to re-frame how they see the world and to fit this into their own values.

Ask questions

The third most important step in getting people to change their minds is to ask questions. Asking the right one can be highly effective in opening up fresh thinking, without offering something new in its place.

One of the most powerful leadership questions of recent times has been that from: Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones who regularly reduced roomfuls of executives by asking: Why should anyone be led by you?

Questions that make you think, re-look at evidence, and ask questions back and so on can be a powerful way to start triggering a change of mind. One of the best of these is to ask “why”, though too many straight “whys” can  actually increase resistance to a change of mind. So instead find ways to ask “why” in many and varied forms.

There are of course many other methods to encourage a person to change their mind and you can choose from a long list of possibilities including: re-framing, assertiveness, body language, conversation, listening, negotiation tactics, propaganda, problem-solving, repetition and using humour.

While on the subject of questions: when was the last time you changed your mind? How important was it and what led you to do that? Add your comments below!

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