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How to persuade when fear is not an option

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Leader Around Clockwork Workers

You’re feeling despondent. You’re almost a year into the new normal and now you face a roadblock. It was exciting and challenging in the early days of #HorridCovid – so much happened. Everyone in the ‘department of no’ seemed to be on holiday and everyone else became extremely flexible. Together, you were able to keep supporting your customers and stakeholders. ‘Virtual’ was the word.

Before the pandemic, your digital transformation programme had moved slowly, as if its feet were stuck in treacle. Once COVID-19 hit, those feet now had wings attached. But now, you notice the mood is beginning to shift and attitudes are moving towards: “We’ve done all right. What we have is good enough for a while.” People are complaining about being exhausted ‘zoombies’. What is happening and why? How do we stop it? And how do we ensure that our stakeholders own the future and keep creatively moving towards digital transformation?

Resistance to change

One of the most memorable lunches I have had was with a FTSE 100 CEO. He’d invited me to discuss change and transformation, and his opening line was: “This new organisation I’ve moved to, the people are so resistant to change.” So, I asked: “How do you know they are resistant to change?” He replied: “Because I keep changing things and they keep resisting!” I laughed out loud, but he wasn’t amused – he was buying lunch.

He had begun with reasonable requests for change and then become frustrated when his team answered that they were already doing what he suggested. So he complained vociferously about the lack of customer focus and threatened to fire anyone who didn’t make improvements. Terrified, the new staff responded with roadmaps to improvement. At which point, he had gone to the next item on his list, ‘value for money’.

Again, he threatened the cold pavement outside for anyone not moving. Even more terrified, the staff delivered yet more roadmaps. Then the CEO moved to the third item, but the staff noticed he was no longer full of fire and fury on customer focus and stopped work. Then they stopped working on the value for money roadmaps. They realised that the crazy boss comes along asking for stuff. Just say ‘yes’, mime activity, wait, and go back to what you were doing before. The CEO had made them resistant to change.

External change provokes fear

Humans have not evolved to go in search of uncertainty, chaos and change (ancestors who did that died out). All externally initiated change invokes an emotional response – we become less logical because thinking is going to be less effective than being in the moment and responding fast. Frightened people become cunning, not creative. And yet, you will have noticed how excited you get by your own ideas. Internally initiated change is totally fine with you because you are providing answers to questions you own.

If an external change puts people in a fearful state, the only way to compel them to act is to use more fear like the CEO described above. Logical arguments tend not to overcome emotional states, especially fear of pain or death. #HorridCovid made people flexible because it terrified them. They feared for their lives and livelihoods, and now their livelihoods seem secure they are settling back in – it is inevitable. As fear fades, compliance drops.

Persuasion beyond fear

As a project leader, you must ‘persuade to perform’ and ‘persuade to be productive’ because you want to succeed better than before.

Did you know that some colours (red and white) persuade better? Did you know that simply adding the word ‘because’ to a sentence is more persuasive even if the reason doesn’t make sense? Appealing to someone’s sense of identity works really well if you first get them to accept that identity. Compare “You should engage people early” with “As a project manager, you should engage people early”. See? (Questions are also persuasive).

Researchers and practitioners have now fully understood the human control panel. It seems that facts only persuade when they are put into a story and presented in contrast to something else.

The most persuasive of all is fear, but it is self-limiting because people quickly become cunning and resistant – it is also unethical. However, that hasn’t stopped people who want to win your vote or your click from manipulating your human control panel. As a project leader, you must ‘persuade to perform’ and ‘persuade to be productive’ because you want to succeed better than before. (Did I tell you repetition is persuasive?)

How to be persuasive, the right way

As project leader, you will need to get your team’s attention and then persuade them. They will then need to maintain project momentum. Here’s how to do it. Introduce the issue but only use information they already know, eg: “You know how the organisation has been trying to expand globally?” Then follow up with facts and data (not to persuade, but for the following step), such as: “We have translated the product into 34 languages and clients say that this is the most helpful thing ever.” Then ask them a personalised question: “How are you going to make sure that this goes faster?” (‘I’ or ‘you’, not ‘we’, and make it future-focused.) And then you shut up and let them build the solution and persuade themselves.

Called IDQB (issue, data, question, build), it is the most powerful ethical persuasion method I have ever created.

A version of this article appears in the winter 2020 edition of Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members.

Image: rudall30/


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