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Reflection – Becca Allen

by on October 9, 2007

Trust and the Salesman

I found John’s success story of the St. Petersburg Times very interesting. For one thing, I’m a sucker for happy endings. The fact that one little newspaper can be so successful shows that there are large numbers of people who support the kind of honest, informed journalism that isn’t fed by the political agendas of advertisers and media moguls. While I’m happy to zone out on my celebrity updates from any source, I try to be more selective when it comes to issues that really impact the people I care about and the world I live in. At any rate, as I read John’s case, I was reminded of an excerpt from the book I’ve been reading for my book review. Specifically, the mention of cable television as a primary news source for Americans got me thinking about how the ability to initiate change in others can rely heavily on human emotions such as trust, loyalty, and goodwill.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, some people who act as effective change agents have a “salesman”-like quality to them, but not in the slimy, double-crossing kind of way. A great salesman has “the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing” and does so with great energy and affability (Gladwell, 2000, p.73). Furthermore, the ability to be persuasive covers a lot more than just words. Gladwell referred to an experiment conducted during the 1984 presidential election, between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. A team of psychologists taped three anchors reporting the news: Peter Jennings at ABC, Tom Brokaw at NBC, and Dan Rather at CBS. After creating multiple segments of each anchor discussing the two presidential candidates and removing the sound, the clips were shown to study participants who were asked to rate the facial expressions of the anchors according to a scale, from “extremely negative” to “extremely positive.” Dan Rather’s face was rated as basically neutral while talking about both candidates, as was Tom Brokaw’s. Peter Jennings, however, rated dramatically higher on the “extremely positive” side while discussing Reagan over Mondale. The study concluded that Jennings “exhibited a ‘significant and noticeable bias in facial expression’” (Gladwell, 2000, p.75).

In the second part of the study, numerous calls were made all over the country to people who were considered regular viewers of the evening news. When asked which presidential candidate they voted for, those who watched Jennings on “ABC voted for Reagan in far greater numbers than those who watched CBS or NBC” (Gladwell, 2000, p.76). This is also in light of the fact that ABC was “shown to be the network most hostile to Reagan” throughout the presidential campaign (Gladwell, 2000, p. 76). The body language of one news anchor superseded all other messages, including the neutral, journalistic words from his mouth. The director of the study said:

…someone’s subtle signals in favor of one politician or another usually don’t matter at all. But in the particular, unguarded way that people watch the news, a little bias can suddenly go a long way…it’s much more subtle and for that reason much more insidious, and that much harder to insulate ourselves against. (Gladwell, 2000, p. 78)

My general understanding of the news is that it’s unbiased accounts of relevant current events; we take in the information, process it according to our personal lens, and then form our own judgments and opinions accordingly. This perspective automatically lends a certain amount of trust in any official organization that delivers the news. When humans are able to feel genuine trust, we put our guards down. This makes us susceptible to influence, but whether or not that’s a “good” or “bad” thing depends on the situation. It’s certainly disconcerting to see how easily we can be persuaded by signals and nuances that we don’t consciously notice. Most importantly, what implications do trust and the “salesman” have on managing organizational change?

Trust and Theory O
While researching examples of failures and successes, I came across an article that broke change management down into two categories: E and O. E strategies concern “change based on economic value” and O strategies are “change based on organizational capability” (Beer and Nohria, 2000, p. 134). A company implementing theory E usually uses “economic incentives, drastic layoffs, downsizing, and restructuring,” from the top down (Beer and Nohria, 2000, p. 134). In contrast, theory O involves the soft methods of developing “corporate culture and human capability through individual and organizational learning,” from the bottom up (Beer and Nohria, 2000, p. 134). Some companies use just one theory while others use a combination of both, and successes are found from doing either. However, the authors warn that due to the opposing nature of theories E and O, successful organizational change with sustained competitive advantage will only be achieved with specific application of the two strategies.

In order to implement theory E, leaders need to be ruthless in prioritizing shareholder value; employees that cannot meet goals or subscribe to the E philosophy are given few chances before they are let go. “CEOs who must make difficult E-style choices understandably distance themselves from their employees to ease their own pain and guilt” (Beer and Nohria, 2000, p. 137). On the other hand, to effectively transform culture with theory O, the ultimate focus is on open communication and teamwork. The cases used as O examples illustrated companies emerging from their change with matrix and decentralized structures. Sequencing the two strategies one after another can be problematic, whereas—the article concludes—a combination of both is the winning application. While the entire article was very informative, I found myself drawn to theory O. Maximizing profits with theory E is undoubtedly crucial, but it’s not a strategy I’ve often encountered in our readings up to this point. Its focus is on numbers; pretty straightforward. The change management we’re learning about is heavily people-centered; complex and difficult.

This is where the necessity of trust comes in. There was a question posed during the class lecture today about the importance of trust in working relationships. If a team can trust one another’s capabilities, they are more likely to let their guards down, which fosters creativity and strengthens interpersonal relationships. I am much more likely to give the salesman a chance to convince me of their cause if I trust the person first and foremost. I don’t need to trust you with my life; you’re a coworker, not a best friend. But I do need to know that you have our mutual best interests at heart for me to even consider change. If that initial bond has been forged, you may even be able to slip in a little bias, à la Peter Jennings, to really drive the point home and get me thinking differently.

Closing Questions
So…why is this class a part of our core curriculum? Is it because, as information managers, we will be tasked with gaining buy-in from our peers when it comes to justifying the implementation of new information systems? Or is it because change, just like information, is a pervasive and constant component of every organization? And, also like information, will learning how to effectively contain and manage change contribute to competitive advantage? Can change be seen as an asset? Can you maximize the value of change just like you can with other assets, such as human resources and finances?

Beer, M. & Nohria, N. (2000). Cracking the Code of Change. Harvard Business Review, 133-141.

Gladwell, M. (2000). The Tipping Point. New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company.

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