We all know that “know it all”, or maybe it is us. Here are some tactics to get them to listen.

THE LEGEND OF Steve Jobs is that he transformed our lives with the strength of his convictions.

The key to his greatness, the story goes, was his ability to bend the world to

his vision. The reality is that much of Apple’s success came
from his team’s pushing him to rethink his positions. If Jobs
hadn’t surrounded himself with people who knew how to
change his mind, he might not have changed the world.
For years Jobs insisted he would never make a phone.
After his team finally persuaded him to reconsider, he
banned outside apps; it took another year to get him to
reverse that stance. Within nine months the App Store had

a billion downloads, and a decade later
the iPhone had generated more than
$1 trillion in revenue.
Almost every leader has studied
the genius of Jobs, but surprisingly few
have studied the genius of those who

managed to influence him. As an orga-
nizational psychologist, I’ve spent time

with a number of people who succeeded
in motivating him to think again, and
I’ve analyzed the science behind their
techniques. The bad news is that plenty
of leaders are so sure of themselves that
they reject worthy opinions and ideas
from others and refuse to abandon their
own bad ones. The good news is that it

is possible to get even the most over-
confident, stubborn, narcissistic, and

disagreeable people to open their minds.
A growing body of evidence shows
that personality traits aren’t necessarily
consistent from one situation to the
next. Think of the dominant manager
who is occasionally submissive, the
hypercompetitive colleague who
sporadically becomes cooperative, or
the chronic procrastinator who finishes
some projects early. Every leader has an
if…then profile: a pattern of responding
to particular scenarios in certain ways.
If the dominant manager is interacting

with a superior…then she becomes sub-
missive. If the competitive colleague is

dealing with an important client…then he

shifts into cooperative mode. If the pro-
crastinator has a crucial deadline coming

up…then she gets her act together.
Computer code is a string of if…then
commands. Humans are a lot messier,
but we too have predictable if…then
responses. Even the most rigid people

flex at times, and even the most open-
minded have moments when they shut

down. So if you want to reason with
people who seem unreasonable, pay
attention to instances when they—or
others like them—change their minds.
Here are some approaches that can help
you encourage a know-it-all to recognize
when there’s something to be learned,
a stubborn colleague to make a U-turn,
a narcissist to show humility, and a
disagreeable boss to agree with you.
The first barrier to changing someone’s
view is arrogance. We’ve all encountered
leaders who are overconfident: They
don’t know what they don’t know. If you
call out their ignorance directly, they
may get defensive. A better approach is
to let them recognize the gaps in their
own understanding.

In a series of experiments, psychol-
ogists asked Yale students to rate their

knowledge of how everyday objects,
such as televisions and toilets, work.
The students were supremely confident
in their knowledge—until they were
asked to write out their explanations

step-by-step. As they struggled to artic-
ulate how a TV transmits a picture and

a toilet flushes, their overconfidence
melted away. They suddenly realized
how little they understood.
Trying to explain something complex
can be a humbling experience—even for
someone like Steve Jobs.
A few years ago I met Wendell
Weeks, the CEO of Corning, which
makes the glass for the iPhone. That
relationship began when Jobs reached
out to him, frustrated that the plastic
face of the iPhone prototype kept
getting scratched. Jobs wanted strong

glass to cover the display, but his team
at Apple had sampled some of Corning’s
glass and found it too fragile. Weeks
explained that he could think of three
ways to develop something better.
“I don’t know that I’d make the glass
for you,” he told Jobs, “but I’d be very
happy to talk with any members of your
team who are technical enough to talk
this thing through.” Jobs responded,
“I’m technical enough!”
When Weeks flew out to Cupertino,
Jobs tried to tell him how to make the
glass. Instead of arguing, Weeks let him
explain the way his preferred method
would work. As Jobs started talking, it
became clear to both of them that he
didn’t fully understand how to design
glass that wouldn’t shatter. That was
the opening Weeks needed. He walked
to a whiteboard and said, “Let me teach
you some science, and then we can
have a great conversation.” Jobs agreed,
and Weeks eventually sketched out
the glass composition, complete with
molecules and sodium and potassium
ion exchanges. They ended up doing
it Weeks’s way. The day the iPhone
launched, Weeks received a message
from Jobs that’s now framed in his office:
“We couldn’t have done it without you.”
A second obstacle to changing people’s
opinions is stubbornness. Intractable
people see consistency and certainty as
virtues. Once made up, their minds seem
to be set in stone. But their views become
more pliable if you hand them a chisel.

In a classic experiment, psycholo-
gists surveyed students regarding their

beliefs about control: Did they see their

successes and failures as determined pri-
marily by internal forces, such as effort

and choice, or by external forces, such
as luck and fate? Stubborn people tend
to believe in internal control: They think
outcomes can be subject to their will.
Next the students evaluated a proposed
change to their university’s grading

system. One third read a lightly persua-
sive argument that the new system had

been widely accepted at other schools
and appeared to be one of the best
ever used. Another third read a more
forceful argument: This was such a good
procedure that they would have to rate it
highly. The final third got no persuasive
argument. All the students then rated
the new proposal on a scale from 1 (very
poor) to 10 (very good).
Their reactions depended on their
beliefs about control. In people who
favored external control, both the light
and the forceful arguments generated
enthusiasm about the new system.
They were comfortable changing their
minds in the face of outside influence.
People who favored internal control
were unmoved by the light argument
and were moved in the other direction
by the forceful argument. In other
words, when someone tried hard to alter
their thinking, they snapped back like a
rubber band.
A solution to this problem comes

from a study of Hollywood screenwrit-
ers. Those who pitched fully formed con-
cepts to executives right out of the gate

struggled to get their ideas accepted.
Successful screenwriters, by contrast,
understood that Hollywood executives
like to shape stories. Those writers
treated the pitch more like a game of

catch, tossing an idea over to the suits,
who would build on it and throw it back.
Not long ago I was introduced to a
former Apple engineer named Mike Bell,
who knew how to play catch with Steve
Jobs. In the late 1990s Bell was listening

to music on his Mac computer and get-
ting annoyed at the thought of lugging

the device with him from room to room.
When he suggested building a separate
box to stream audio, Jobs laughed at

him. When Bell recommended stream-
ing video, too, Jobs fired back, “Who the

f— would ever want to stream video?”
Bell told me that when evaluating
other people’s ideas, Jobs often pushed
back to assert his control. But when Jobs
was the one generating ideas, he was
more open to considering alternatives.
Bell learned to plant the seeds of a new
concept, hoping that Jobs would warm
to it and give it some sunlight.

Research shows that asking ques-
tions instead of giving answers can over-
come people’s defensiveness. You’re not

telling your boss what to think or do;
you’re giving her some control over the
conversation and inviting her to share
her thoughts. Questions like “What
if?” and “Could we?” spark creativity
by making people curious about what’s
One day Bell casually mentioned that
since no one would have a Mac in every
room, streaming on other devices was
going to be a big deal. Then, instead of
pressing his argument, he asked, “What
if we built a box that would let you play
content?” Jobs was still skeptical, but
as he imagined the possibilities, he
started to take some ownership of the
idea and eventually gave Bell the green
light. “I knew I’d succeeded when he

was arguing my point and proposing the
project I’d pitched him,” Bell recalls. “By
the end he was telling people to get out
of my way.” That project helped pave the
way for Apple TV.
A third hurdle in the way of changing
minds is narcissism. Narcissistic leaders
believe they’re superior and special,
and they don’t take kindly to being told
they’re wrong. But with careful framing,

you can coax them toward acknowledg-
ing that they’re flawed and fallible.

It’s often said that bullies and narcis-
sists have low self-esteem. But research

paints a different picture: Narcissists

actually have high but unstable self-
esteem. They crave status and approval

and become hostile when their fragile
egos are threatened—when they’re

insulted, rejected, or shamed. By appeal-
ing to their desire to be admired, you can

counteract their knee-jerk tendency to
reject a difference of opinion as criticism.
Indeed, studies in both the United States
and China have shown that narcissistic
leaders are capable of demonstrating
humility: They can believe they’re gifted

while acknowledging their imperfec-
tions. To nudge them in that direction,

affirm your respect for them.
In 1997, not long after returning to
Apple as CEO, Jobs was discussing a new
suite of technology at the company’s
global developer conference. During
the audience Q&A, one man harshly
criticized the software and Jobs himself.
“It’s sad and clear that on several counts
you’ve discussed, you don’t know what
you’re talking about,” he said. (Ouch.)

You might assume that Jobs went
on the attack, got defensive, or maybe
even threw the man out of the room.
Instead he showed humility: “One of
the hardest things when you’re trying
to effect change is that people like this
gentleman are right in some areas,” he
exclaimed, adding: “I readily admit
there are many things in life that I don’t
have the faintest idea what I’m talking
about. So I apologize for that….We’ll find
the mistakes; we’ll fix them.” The crowd
erupted into applause.
How did the critic elicit such a calm
reaction? He kicked his comments off
with a compliment: “Mr. Jobs, you’re
a bright and influential man.” As the
audience laughed, Jobs replied, “Here
it comes.”
As this story shows, a dash of acclaim

can be a powerful antidote to a nar-
cissist’s insecurity. Not all displays of

respect are equally effective, though. It
doesn’t help to bury criticism between

two compliments: The feedback sand-
wich doesn’t taste as good as it looks.

Beginnings and ends are more likely to
stick in our memories than middles, and
narcissists are especially likely to ignore
the criticism altogether.
The key is to praise people in an area
different from the one in which you
hope to change their minds. If you’re
trying to get a narcissistic leader to
rethink a bad choice, it’s a mistake to
say you admire her decision-making
skills; you’re better off commending
her creativity. We all have multiple
identities, and when we feel secure
about one of our strengths, we become

more open to accepting our shortcom-
ings elsewhere. Psychologists find that

narcissists are less aggressive—and

less selfish—after being reminded that
they’re athletic or funny.
The audience member at the Apple
developer conference seemed to have

an intuitive appreciation of Jobs’s nar-
cissistic if…then profile. By commend-
ing his intelligence and importance, he

made it comfortable for Jobs to acknowl-
edge that he didn’t know everything

about software.
A final impediment to persuasion is
disagreeableness, a trait often expressed

through argumentativeness. Disagree-
able people are determined to crush the

competition, and when you urge them to
reevaluate their strategy, that’s what you
become. However, if you’re willing to
stand up to them rather than back down,
you can sometimes gain the upper hand.
Because disagreeable people are
energized by conflict, they don’t always
want you to bend to their will right
away; they’re eager to duke it out. When
researchers studied how CEOs decided
which executives to nominate for board
seats at other companies, it turned out

that candidates who had a habit of argu-
ing before agreeing with their bosses were

more likely to get the nod. It showed that
they weren’t yes-men or yes-women but
were willing to fight for their ideas and
change their own minds. In the 1980s at
Apple, the leaders of the Mac team gave
an award to one person a year who had
the temerity to challenge Steve Jobs.
Eventually Jobs promoted each winner
to run a key division of the company.
In a recent study of ideas pitched by
junior people on a health care team, the
vast majority were initially rejected by

senior leaders. The 24% that made it to
implementation did so because their
proponents kept fighting for them by

refining and repeating pitches, acknowl-
edging and addressing weaknesses,

offering proof of concept, and enlisting
When Apple’s engineers brought up

the idea of making a phone, Jobs com-
piled a list of reasons why it wouldn’t

work. One was that smartphones were for

the “pocket-protector crowd.” His engi-
neers agreed but then challenged him:

If Apple made a phone, how beautiful
and elegant could it be? They also tapped
the competitive energy he felt toward
Microsoft. Wouldn’t there be a Windows
phone eventually? Jobs was intrigued
but he still wasn’t sold. Tony Fadell, the
inventor of the iPod and a cocreator of
the iPhone, told me that people “had
to work as a group, not simply in one

meeting but possibly over weeks, to get
him to change his mind or to see things
from another angle.” In the case of the
iPhone, this argument continued for
many months. Fadell and his engineers

chipped away at the resistance by build-
ing early prototypes in secret, showing

Jobs demos, and refining their designs.
Eventually, one big objection
remained: The cell phone carriers
controlled the networks, and they would
force Apple to make a subpar product.
Again the team appealed to Jobs’s
disagreeable tendencies: Could he get
the carriers to do it his way? “If we
had a powerful enough device,” Fadell
said, “he could get them to sign up to all
of these terms that would remove all of
those obstacles.” Jobs saw the potential

and ran with the idea, winning that bat-
tle. “Steve totally reset the relationship

with the carriers,” former Palm CEO and

Handspring cofounder Donna Dubinsky
told me. “I always felt that this was his
biggest accomplishment.”
IN 1985, AFTER presiding over product
launches that were technical wonders
but sales busts, Steve Jobs was forced
out of his own company. In 2005 he
said, “It was awful-tasting medicine,
but I guess the patient needed it.” He
learned that no matter how powerful his
vision was, there were still times when
he had to rethink his convictions. When
he returned as CEO, it was not only
with newfound openness but also with
greater determination to hire people
ready to challenge him and help him
overcome his own worst instincts. That
set the stage for Apple’s resurgence.
Organizations need strong, visionary
executives like Jobs. But they also need
employees like Tony Fadell and Mike
Bell, suppliers like Wendell Weeks, and
stakeholders like the audience member
who stood up to complain at Apple’s
developer conference—people who
know how to effectively counteract
bosses and colleagues who tend toward

overconfidence, stubbornness, narcis-
sism, or disagreeableness. In a turbulent

world, success depends not just on

cognitive horsepower but also on cog-
nitive flexibility. When leaders lack the

wisdom to question their convictions,
followers need the courage to persuade
them to change their minds.

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