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Gotham Leadership Consulting
  New York City, Miami/Ft. Lauderdale & Singapore

How to Tell Someone They’re Wrong (Hint: Don’t Google It)

Back in August of 2017, James Damore’s now-infamous manifesto on diversity at Google, and his stated views on differences between men and women, caused quite a public stir. Since then, revelations of well-known public figures being involved in workplace harassment, and the momentum of the ‘me too’ movement have drawn attention to just how widespread inappropriate behavior is in the workplace. These incidents have only served to further focus public attention on issues of gender equality and fair treatment within the workplace—and in some cases to further polarize public opinion on the actions of the accused and the credibility of the accusers.

With that in mind, we thought it an appropriate time to revisit Damore’s memo, with a different angle. Our focus is on responding effectively to disagreement on issues that engender strong opinions—in a way intended to persuade rather than to further polarize.

The reaction to Damore’s manifesto was very strong and, as is often the case in today’s political climate, very polarized as well. Amid the public outcry, Google quickly fired Damore. CEO Sundar Pinchai argued that while Google encouraged free speech among its employees, Damore had crossed the line “by advancing harmful stereotypes in our workplace.”

Damore responded by taking his case directly to the internet and news media. He decried Google’s reaction as a means of silencing him rather than openly discussing the topic, and vowed legal action against Google. His cause was quickly taken up by some political activists, given that it perfectly fit their narrative of ‘political correctness’ being used as a tool to oppress and silence those with dissenting perspectives.
Although many would argue against this view, there is a point here–not just with respect to Google but with respect to those within the scientific community. How often do we respond to ideas that seem particularly repugnant and unscientific with a rebuke and a statement along the lines of: “science has long since proven you wrong, and it’s no longer even open to discussion?” This is a natural response born out of frustration, but is it realistic to think that this approach would be effective in persuading somebody to change his or her strongly-held views on a topic?

Might there be a better way to persuade somebody to change his/her views? Years of research in attitude change and social psychology provide some suggestions:

  • Don’t deny rumors, instead affirm a competing notion. President Obama used the advice of a team of social scientists to help him win the 2012 election. When a rumor circulated that he was secretly a Muslim, his team emphasized his Christian background and his membership in his local parish, rather than denying the rumor. No one likes to be told that they are wrong, and everyone is more accepting when they can adopt an alternate narrative.
  • Leverage the foot-in-the door technique. People are more likely to comply to a big request if they have previously agreed to smaller requests. And when you try to persuade people of something they don’t agree with, they perceive it as a big request. If you can get them to agree with smaller chunks of the argument first, they don’t feel so overwhelmed when asked to accept the entire argument, and are less likely to feel that they are being inconsistent with their previous position.
  • Cognitive dissonance is a powerful tool. When we hold contradictory views or attitudes, we experience tension and are motivated to reduce it. As Dale Carnegie wrote, “Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.” If you can position the other person as someone who holds noble values, it will be easier to get them to embrace more selfless positions. The desire to appear consistent has a strong effect on our behavior.
  • Make others “own” it. Cognitive dissonance is important here too. Elliot Aronson, an expert on dissonance, advised “If you want someone to form more positive attitudes toward an object, get him to commit himself to own that object.” Once a person owns the object, cognitive dissonance kicks in and tells us that we would not own something that is not true or not important, and that motivates us to view the object more positively. For example, if someone in your office decries diversity efforts, you should consider giving him or her a role in your diversity outreach program. And once we feel like we own something, the endowment effect causes us to value it even more highly.
  • We look for social proof. We constantly compare ourselves to others, especially to people who we consider to be similar to us. When your mother asked, “if all of your friends jump off of a bridge would you do it too” it sounded ridiculous, but it speaks to the robustness of this phenomenon. Demanding that others agree with the majority position can cause a backlash (through a process called psychological reactance), but informing others of what people like them generally think forces them to examine why they hold the positions that they do.
  • Recognize that there are emotions involved. People are strongly invested in their attitudes. Our thoughts and beliefs are central to our identities. It’s important to remember that change comes easier to some people than others. Stereotypes are strongly entrenched and hard to change. Patience and empathy are crucial.

While it’s certainly easy and natural to respond to statements we find abhorrent with a quick rebuke, it’s helpful to consider the purpose of our response. If our intent is truly to persuade another to change his/ or her views, it pays to pause, take a deep breath and consider approaches that will actually be persuasive.