[Image: Flat Earth map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893. via Wikimedia Commons]
We are all irrational beings. Repeatedly making dubious decisions both at home and at work. Emotions, social norms, expectations and context all keep leading us astray.
However irrational the decisions may be, we are convinced that they are right even when facts stare at us in the face, telling us otherwise. History is replete with stories about people who, once they have decided to believe something, will tend to keep on believing it, even when faced with powerful evidence to the contrary—the world is flat, the sun revolves around the earth, base metal can be turned into gold and Iraq has a nuclear arsenal are a few examples. Researchers across the world have found that false beliefs often persist long after they are discredited. This phenomenon is called ‘belief perseverance’.
I remember reading a story about elephants and chains many years ago. A man was passing an elephant enclosure in a zoo and noticed that these huge animals were being held by only a small rope tied to their front leg. No chains and no cages. Clearly these elephants could break out of these bonds without much effort. The man was intrigued and asked the mahout. The mahout smiled and said, “Right from the time when the elephants are small and very young we use the same size rope to tie them. At that age, this thickness of rope is enough to hold them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free.” Isn’t that amazing?
Those elephants are not the only ones bound by the story in their heads; it happens to all of us and it happens in organisations. Belief perseverance can help us understand why it is so hard to change entrenched views. All of us who have in the past tried to implement any change—change in culture, transformation, new approach or new strategy—would certainly have faced this challenge. This is why when individuals, teams and employees in an organisation believe in something contrary to the change one is trying to incorporate, the resistance is enormous.
The usual approach to change, starts with our own belief that people are rational and when we reach out to them using reason, facts and logic they will come around but they rarely do. We also assume that a powerful, impassioned speech accompanied by a jazzy PowerPoint presentation should do the trick. When it doesn’t, we try even harder. We think we just need to find the correct argument, and putting more hard facts on the table will work.
But this doesn’t work because confirmation bias kicks in. The listener just receives those bits of data that support their view and uses them to further strengthen their case. Not only is this ‘push strategy’ of drowning people in facts and data ineffective in discrediting a belief, it actually often works against that very objective.
I do not claim to have discovered the miracle drug for this but while using various facets of story work, I have often found a magical way out. This way out starts with the conviction that it is virtually impossible to fight a story with a fact. And what people resisting change have in their heads are not facts about why the change will not work but stories about how they haven’t worked in the past. And one can never replace a story with facts, no matter how robust and statistically significant they are. We can only replace it with a more powerful story. As philosopher Gordon Livingston said more articulately, “It is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place.”
So instead of approaching the resistance armed with tonnes of facts alone, I advise my clients to use a structure we call the ‘influence story’ structure. Here we start by acknowledging the story the listener has in his or her head (we call this an anti-story), we then share an anecdote where the point of view we have actually worked, we then make our case and finally make our point. Stories are a ‘pull strategy’ because the listener uses the details in the story to create a picture of the event in their mind. The listener ‘owns’ the story and it does not trigger the confirmation bias.
Here is an example. There are times when people tell me, “The work you are doing in business storytelling seems very intuitive and very powerful. But I am not sure it will work in my industry (construction, aerospace, insurance, etc.)”
When I am faced with this, the influence story I use goes like this: “Given how new the field of business storytelling is, I can see how you might be sceptical about its usage in your industry. About a year ago, I was speaking to the chief human resource officer of a major power company. He had exactly the same doubt. In fact, he went on to add, ‘we are neither a typical business-to-business or a business-to-consumer company, we generate electricity and supply to captive consumers’. I insisted that great communication is not just required for external stakeholders but perhaps even more important for internal ones. A great team works on engines oiled by great communication. He agreed to run a pilot programme and test the ground with 20 of his senior managers. The programme was so successful that we have now rolled it out to everyone at the senior level and are working on taking it to the next level next year. Hence, I strongly feel that the power of stories cuts across functions and industries. Wherever communication is important, stories can be an extremely powerful tool. Hence, I would strongly urge you to try out this new skill and see for yourself that we are all hardwired for stories.”
I must confess that this influence story may not have converted every sceptic, but more than half of them have changed their minds.