This week I’ve been reading The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas by G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa.  Overall I thought the book was just fine, but it did get me thinking a lot about selling ideas in a work setting.

In the book, the authors lay out a fairly comprehensive taxonomy of persuasion personalities, including: “The Chess Player,” “The Driver,” “The Promoter,” and “The Commander.”  While I think this breakout is both comprehensive and interesting, I believe there is one thing even more fundamental to selling your ideas at the office.  That one thing is maintaining a high level of respect for the identities of your colleagues.

Allow me to elaborate here.

If one of my coworkers came over to my desk and told me that I was terrible at creating visually attractive PowerPoint slides, I really wouldn’t think anything of it.  I would probably ask for their suggestions on how to make my slides more appealing.  If the suggestions were good, I might try them out and see how they work for me.  The whole exchange would be pretty emotionless and cordial.  I suppose making attractive PowerPoint slides is part of my job, but it doesn’t feel to me like it’s my main responsibility.  The ability to create good-looking PowerPoint slides is not part of my work identity, so I don’t really mind when people offer criticism.

On the other hand, if that same coworker were to go over to someone in the marketing department and offer a similar criticism, the response would no doubt be different.  It’s much more likely that a marketing professional would consider the ability to create visually attractive PowerPoint slides as part of their work identity; therefore, upon hearing the criticism, they would likely have an emotional reaction.  This type of instinctive emotional response makes it very hard for the marketing manager to change behavior, even if the criticism is valid, supported by others, and easy to accommodate.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you should never talk to people about their jobs, but rather that you have to be careful how you approach the conversation.  If you suspect that your ideas will violate or infringe someone’s identity, you have to allow them to save face while delivering your thoughts.  Be ask-assertive, allow them to give you permission to criticize them, admit fallibility prior to speaking.  Do whatever you can to protect their identity and they will be much more likely to adopt your ideas.

My simple rule here may not be as comprehensive as the selling strategies in The Art of Woo, but I’m not too interested in being known as a “Driver” or “Chess Player.”  I would much rather be known as someone who treats his coworkers with dignity and respect.

The Key to Selling Ideas at Work
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  • I rather enjoyed that book when I read it.

    I actually didn’t take their taxonomy of approaches all that seriously; it seemed secondary to the main point, which is that knowing your audience – similar to your point here – is key.

    My takeaway was more that there are multiple valid ways of persuading people, and your approach is up to you – but here are a few common approaches, and some of the pitfalls that occur when you end up focusing on how to persuade yourself (and not other people).

    Good about about helping people protect their identity – “saving face” is astonishingly important. If you can allow people to admit wrongdoing without it reflecting poorly on them, people are dramatically more likely to do so.

    Of course, that approach is difficult when you find yourself working with people who are doing (in your mind) completely the wrong thing – but that wrong thing is core to their (work) identity. It’s very difficult to persuade people in that situation. Ideally, you’ll always work with highly competent people you trust to know their own jobs better than you ever could, but I think it’s useful to consider when that is not the case as well.

    Solving the problem in the “easy” scenario is never quite as illuminating as solving the more complex scenarios (and, frequently, there isn’t an elegant solution in the more complex/difficult scenarios).

  • Another very small note – I don’t think constructive criticism (main topic of your post) is quite the same as “selling an idea” at work. I’d take the latter to be more adopting a significantly different approach as opposed to making incremental improvements. Not that incremental improvements aren’t important – but I don’t think it’s the same skill/approach.

  • Steven Golus

    Just got the book. Thanks for the recommendation.