Leadership is about many things, some of them quite lofty: setting a strategic direction, creating a shared sense of purpose, modeling behaviors you hope to see in others. But effective leadership often boils down to something more mundane — getting people to do things they would rather not do. Maybe it’s returning to the office three days a week after working remotely for so long. Maybe it’s reinventing performance reviews, or launching a new product that disrupts an old favorite. If the work of leadership is the work of change, then overcoming the natural tendency to resist change has to be at the top of every leader’s agenda.
More than 150 years ago, Herman Melville created one of the most unforgettable (and infuriating) business characters of American literature. Melville’s short story introduced readers to Bartleby the Scrivener, a low-level employee at a Wall Street law firm whom, when asked to do even the most basic task, or make the smallest change to his routine, would respond, “I prefer not to .” Now, I’m not suggesting your colleagues are modern-day versions of Bartleby, but when it comes to getting on board with new ways to work, sell, or innovate, the hard truth is that many people would prefer not to.
So how do leaders persuade people to do things they would rather not do? Social scientists have been wrestling with that question for decades. They devised lots of experiments that helped them to identify two very different persuasive techniques. Each of these techniques can work in the right situation, although neither of them translates perfectly from the ivory-tower world of social-science research into the messy realities of organizational life. But both techniques can help leaders reflect the hard work of making big change, and what is required to get beyond what management theorists like to call “active inertia” — the tendency for people and organizations to seek comfort in the old ways of doing things, even (or especially) when the world around them is changing.
The “Foot-in-the-Door” Technique
One answer, which psychologists call the “foot-in-the-door” technique, is that the best way to get people to change something big, or do something hard, is to first ask them to change something small, or do something easy . By agreeing to the request, and then meeting it, people develop a sense of commitment and confidence that makes them more enthusiastic about agreeing to the next (bigger) request. In other words, the path to big change is paved by lots of small steps and little bets — each of which builds on what’s come before.
In their landmark article on the foot-in-the-door technique, Stanford professors Jonathan L. Freedman and Scott C. Fraser noted that in most societies and organizations, “it is somewhat difficult to a reasonable request,” so starting small refuse makes it hard for people to say no. But then, “once someone has agreed to take any action, no matter how small,” they “tend to feel more involved” in the situation, and are thus more likely to agree to even bigger actions. The virtue of this technique is that it leads to “compliance without pressure” — people are invited to do something new rather than compelled to do it. The logic goes, in the spirit of that familiar adage, if you persuade people to move an inch, eventually they may move a mile.
I’ve seen the foot-in-the-door technique work well, even if leaders who adopted the approach never used the actual term. Consider the rise of Megabus, a cutting-edge player in a tradition-bound industry, that amounts to a corporate case study of the persuasive power of getting a foot in the door. Today, Megabus looks like a textbook disruptor — a sleek, colorful, widely recognized company that shuttles college students, young professionals, and weekend tourists between city centers across the country. As a business and a brand, it is a breakthrough performer, with all the characteristics of a blank-sheet-of-paper startup.
But Megabus was launched inside one of the biggest transportation conglomerates in the world, a 40-year-old outfit based in Scotland, by company veterans who would never be confused with twenty-somethings from Silicon Valley. The leaders of Megabus were able to make such dramatic changes because they persuaded their colleagues to consider and act on a series of small changes: What if we used a new kind of bus? What if we eliminated stops along our routes and made only express connections? What if these routes connected smaller cities that were close together, rather than big cities that were far apart? What if we tried a paperless ticketing system?
Each of these small changes had plenty of doubters. But as people saw that they worked, there was appetite for more. As Megabus USA’s CEO told me, “This was a test, an initiative, a small bet on where travel could be heading. There was no guru saying, This is the future of bus travel.” Or, as one of the technologists behind the launch told me, Megabus began “as a wee little experiment” that blossomed into “a major part” of the Stagecoach company.
By posing a set of small what-if questions and asking colleagues to engage in a series of modest steps, the leaders of Megabus got a foot in the door that blew the doors of the business wide open.
The “Door-in-the-Face” Technique
There is a second answer to the question of how to get people to do things they would rather not do. That is to insist that they do something even bigger and more dramatic than what you actually have in mind, and then when they refuse or resist, your real objectives seem tame by comparison. Psychologists call this the “door-in-the-face” technique. In another landmark article, researchers asked, “What would be the result of making an extreme first request which is sure to be rejected and then asking for a more moderate second” request? The answer, it turns out, is that people are far more likely to go along with the second request.
When it comes to life in organizations, the door-in-the-face approach is as much of a metaphor as a literal persuasion technique. The leadership lesson is not that you should routinely make demands that you know people can’t or won’t accept, or that it is acceptable to try to bluff your colleagues with phony goals in order to hit the targets you really have in mind. Rather, the idea is that by setting aspirations for performance and change that seem extreme or unreasonable, especially in organizations that suffer from active inertia, you can persuade people to consider innovations they would not have considered otherwise. Wharton professor Jerry Wind calls this “the power of impossible thinking” — and it can make big change a lot more possible.
As I thought about individual leaders who mastered the door-in-the-face approach, I thought back to the brilliant achievements of Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, and by most accounts the greatest football coach of all time. When Lombardi arrived in Green Bay, the team had suffered through the most miserable season in its history. In short order, he led the Packers to three straight and five total NFL championships. One reason Lombardi was so successful was that he was so unreasonable in terms of his expectations for performance and improvement by his players. He insisted that every block had to be flawless, every shift had to be seamless, every cut had to be timed perfectly, for every play his team ran.
When asked why he set such impossible standards, even though those standards invariably produced resistance and pushback, Lombardi replied: “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” This style of door-in-the-face thinking, insisting on goals that even he knew his players could not, allowed Lombardi to persuade them to reach levels of performance they would not have achieved otherwise.
Should you, as a leader responsible for the hard work of big change, embrace the logic and lessons of the foot-in-the-door technique or the door-in-the-face technique? That all depends — on your personal style, the kinds of challenges your organization faces, the culture you’ve built, and the people you’ve recruited. Ultimately, there is no one right way to lead change and unleash exceptional performance. But there is one universal challenge: to persuade people to do things they would rather not do. Just ask Bartleby the Scrivener.