Don't Read This

The big mistake managers make

Posted May 29, 2013

In direct defiance of my title, you have gone ahead and read this anyway. And what does this tell us about the curious species, Homo sapiens? 

It's certainly possible that only a small percentage of the people that read the title went on to read the post. That would mean that you, my reader, are a member of a minority cohort of rebels. But my bet is that virtually everyone that read my title proceeded to read the post. 

It's an example of reverse psychology--I tell you what you shouldn't do to ensure that you do it. One of the reasons that this approach works is human beings are fundamentally wired to resist being controlled. 

Drawing on an extremely unscientific sample, I have found this to be consistently the case with my teenage daughters. The surest way to get them to do something is to tell them not to. 

When I was a teen visiting a friend on Long Island and planning to take the train into the city, his mother expressly forbade us to go to the then seedy Times Square area. Of course, it was our first stop. 

This is an old story. The first work of literature in the Western World, The Iliad, is about the conflict between Achilles and his boss Agamemnon, the cause of which was the king telling the warrior what to do. If it hadn't been finally resolved, we would be studying the Trojan classics, rather than the Greek. 

Curious about this trait of resisting control, I asked a friend of mine who's a professor of neuroscience why people don't like being controlled. He gave me a look that suggested amazement at another trait of our species--our capacity for missing the obvious. "We've evolved to pursue our self-interest," he answered with a tone usually reserved for the cognitively challenged, "so of course we're going to fight any attempt at preventing us from doing that." 

Well, when it's put like that, it's pretty hard to dispute. So now we've got to start wondering about those that actually heeded the injunction in my title. Since they're not reading this, there's not much I can do to help them at this point. 

Our resistance to being told what to do is such a common experience that you think it would be hard to miss, but legions of managers following the conventional wisdom do. It may work for a slice of lemmings (yup, that's what a group of lemmings is called,) but who wants lemmings working for them. 

A good deal of human interaction is about getting others to do what we want. In fact, there is an entire marketing industry with formidable resources dedicated to this endeavor. Rarely do its campaigns assume you can just tell people to buy your product or service and they will. 

Instead, the purchasing decision is aligned with very clear benefits for the prospective customer and they are usually of an aspirational nature. That new car will get you status and excitement, that toothpaste will win you attractive admirers, and that insurance policy Alex Trebeck is hawking will bring you peace of mind. 

The same should be the case when we're trying to sell those that work for us on pursuing a course of action. We must clearly establish what's in it for them, and the more aspirational the better. 

And management consultants like myself are also marketeers. Heed my advice, and you will gain status, be more attractive, and achieve peace. Okay, our claims are often over-blown as well. But you will get better performance with less resistance.

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