Techniques for Encouraging a Change
April 28, 2022 | BY Simcha Felder , CPA, MBA
I have written a lot about leadership. How to lead, what traits make a good leader, and tips to becoming a better leader. But what really is leadership? It is often described as a lofty ideal or strategic concept that is hard to quantify. Academics and social scientists have debated the idea of leadership for years, but what does leadership look like on a day‐to‐day basis?
President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that “the job of getting people really wanting to do something is the essence of leadership.” If you talk with a lot of managers, they often distill the concept of leadership into the simple idea of getting employees to do things they would rather not do. Maybe it’s returning to the office two days a week after working remotely for the last two years. Maybe it’s launching a new company platform that will change how your business and employees operate. Maybe it’s something as simple as asking an irritable clerk to greet customers with a smile. 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.
So how do business leaders persuade employees to do things they would rather not do? Social scientists have developed two popular techniques that leaders can consider. Each can work in the right situation, although neither technique translates perfectly from the ivory‐tower world of research into the realities of corporate life. Both techniques are worth considering when leaders seek to commit to the hard work of making a big change.
The “Foot‐in‐the‐Door” Technique
First coined in 1966 by Stanford professors Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser, the “Foot‐in‐the‐Door” technique refers to a strategy for encouraging a person to agree to a large change by first asking them to change something small. The idea is that when a person agrees and completes a small request, they are much more likely to agree to a larger request, which they would have otherwise rejected. The theory is that people often develop a sense of commitment and confidence when completing a small request that makes them more enthusiastic about agreeing to the next, more significant request. In other words, the path to big change is paved with lots of small steps.
As an example, charities sometimes use the Foot‐in‐the‐Door technique in fundraising efforts. An organization may ask a person to donate a small amount to a cause. Later, the organization will come back and ask the donor if they would be willing to donate again, but increase their amount this time, or donate on a regular basis.
The “Door‐in‐the‐Face” Technique
The second persuasion technique was coined in 1975 by Arizona State University professor Robert Cialdini who found that when confronted with an extreme first request, which will definitely be rejected, a person is then much more likely to agree to a second, more reasonable request. The aim behind the “Door‐in‐the‐Face” technique is that you would ask someone to do something much bigger than what you actually have in mind, and after they refuse your initial request, your real objective seems tame by comparison.
It is important to realize that the Door‐in‐the‐Face approach should be seen as more of a concept than a routinely viable leadership tactic. Most managers will probably agree that regularly trying to bluff your employees with phony goals as a way to hit the targets you really have in mind, is not good leadership. Instead, try thinking of it as a manager setting aspirational goals, especially in organizations that suffer from inertia, to encourage people to consider innovations they would not have tried otherwise.
The next time you are faced with trying to convince reluctant employees to embrace a significant change, consider the lessons of the Door‐in‐the‐Face technique and the Foot‐in‐the‐Door technique. Determining which one will work for you depends on your leadership style, the situation you face, and your organization’s culture. Interestingly, a 2005 analysis found that there were no significant differences in effectiveness between these two techniques. Remember, there is no “right” way to implement change, but having the right tools and techniques can help.