Sunday, March 16, 2014

Persuasion as a Catalyst for Change

I’m not going to lie; Daniel Pink is one of my heroes.  After reading his book Drive a few years back my professional practice was significantly changed for the better.  His work really made me critically reflect upon my leadership practices.  This led to a decision to give my staff and students more autonomy, which resulted in a greater sense of ownership of their learning.  The power of social media then connected the both of us leading to him Skyping with the students at New Milford High School, a personal dialogue over the years, and his endorsement of my new book on Digital Leadership.  Pink was the morning keynote on the opening day of the Annual ASCD Conference in Los Angeles, CA.  His presentation focused on the research presented in his new book To Sell is Human.  This post will be my best attempt to summarize his keynote.

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Persuasion is a huge component of what we do in education. Roughly 40% of our time is spent moving other people from point A to point B or in another direction. The change process and its success for that matter lie in our ability to persuade people to embrace new ideas, concepts, and strategies. We are currently trying to accomplish this in a radically different landscape in a world dominated by technology.  All ideas and information can be fact checked immediately as society continues to become more connected by the day. There is no longer a monopoly on information.  Everyone has it, which makes the art of persuasion and moving people in a better direction much more difficult as there is no longer an information advantage. Instead of information imbalance there is information parity.

So with these challenges what do we do about it in the field of education? One way is to look at current research, especially the work of Robert Cialdini.  His research into influence and behavioral science allows us to piece together more effective ways to persuade, or embrace change, as I would prefer.  Social science suggest three core qualities to move people towards change:

  • Attunement – Can you get out of your own head and see a different point of view? We must learn to accept and embrace different perspectives.
  • Buoyancy – If we are facing an ocean of rejection how do we stay afloat?
  • Clarity – How do we make sense of information? We must move from just accessing information to curating information. 

Instead of having  “big, hairy goals” Pink suggests that we should focus on small wins. As we continue to find success through these small wins they will eventually culminate into moving people where we want, and need, them to be. For this to happen we must relinquish a certain amount of power and control.  It is important for us to not let power overtake our core values, as it will negatively impact our willingness to be open to the perspectives of others.  We can become more effective by reducing our feelings of the need for power.  This was extremely refreshing for me to hear as we have moved away from directives and mandates at NMHS, both heavily aligned to power hungry leadership.  This, in combination with giving up control and trusting both students and teachers, has allowed us to initiate sustainable change at my school leading to transformation.

So who is better at selling stuff, introverts, extroverts, or ambiverts? Well the answer was ambivert, but what the heck is this? According to Pink ambiverts are in the middle of both extroverts and introverts.  None of us really possess all of the qualities and characteristics that define either an introvert or extrovert.  What this really means is that we have to become a better version of ourselves in order to improve our ability to persuade.  Or better yet, to move people to where they need to be. 

You can do this! Well actually this might not be the best course of action. Buoyancy in this frenetic world rests on interrogative self-talk.  A change in mindset that has us ask the question can I do this actually leads to better outcomes related to change. Interrogative self-talk is actually more instructional and can spark the autonomous intrinsic motivation to pursue and accomplish a goal. Pink provided a great analogy in Bob the Builder, who asks the question can we fix this? Taking this perspective can really assist educators move people towards a better way.

Persuasion and motivation are not done to someone; it is actually something they want to do.  Context drives behavior more than we realize. Sometimes changing people’s minds is what we focus on when instead we need to give them an off ramp to act.  When we try to lead there is a tendency to focus on the how.  This is important, but it shortchanges the why.  The cheapest persuasive tool we have is explaining the why. Pink recommends having tow conversations on why to every on how.  As others understand the why the road the change becomes clear.


  1. I appreciate your summary and while I too love Pink and Drive, I've been struggling to get through the newest book. Now, I'm re-inspired.

    I'm actually planing to write my next post on the "why" factor? While I appreciate that everyone - teachers, students and my own children - want to know why, I'm getting exhausted having to explains every step and every why. So, I'm turning the question back on everyone. It's more engaging, builds autonomy and generates better dialogue. I've had far more satisfying conversations and less personal frustrations since I started flipping the why.

  2. That is a really good idea Tara. How long have you "flipped" the way and can you identify a particular result from this approach that might have not materialized if you had approached it the other way?

  3. Understanding the "why" is essential to get behind the "how" - too often leaders mandate instead of taking the needed steps to build capacity.

  4. Great post. Very timely advice to focus on small wins. As an edtech coordinator at my high school, it's tempting to keep pushing, pushing, pushing people to move faster toward what I believe is the future. I sometimes get frustrated with those who seem to embrace intellectual laziness and/or fear instead of trusting me. I need to step back from those judgements and from my own desire to control the outcome, and just trust that change will come (even if it's slower than I'd like). P.S. I think you meant to write parity, not parody, at the end of the second paragraph. :)

  5. Cat - Fear and excuses for not moving forward are an epidemic that continually plague our education system. Change was come for us here at NMHS over the years as we have focused more on the "why" and have been patient during the process. Persuasion has not been of the forced nature, but rather moved along by modeling, support, and flexibility. Keep fighting the good fight and the results will eventually follow.

    BTW - Thanks for the catch on the grammatical error :)

  6. I like the idea of "flipping the why." I can anticipate that teachers would be skeptical of this approach because students lack basic knowledge in many cases. Still, this is the way of engagement.

  7. Thanks for this synopsis on Pink's talk - I appreciate it since I haven't had time to read his latest book. The idea of interrogative self talk really appeals to me. I would go even further and say, "how can I/we do this?"

  8. Tara, have you read Start with Why by Simon Sinek, or watched the talk on TED? It's an older video, but a great talk on a refreshing way to initiate change or inspire action in a way is organic and meaningful.

    Eric, I am a big Daniel Pink fan as well. Have you read any of his stuff that essentially rebuts the notion of pay for performance in non-production work?

  9. I have in fact Chett. Always boggles my mind when the so-called education reformers think merit pay will improve results in education.