How the ‘Halo Effect’ Impacts the Way We See Others

The “halo effect” — or, as it’s scientifically known, “exaggerated emotional coherence” — doesn’t receive the attention it should. The halo effect occurs when we judge others positively in one aspect of their lives (appearance, wit, charm, industriousness) and then apply positive feelings to them for other, often unrelated areas (problem-solving, leadership, sales prowess).

Edward Thorndike first observed the halo effect in 1920, when he analyzed military officer rankings of subordinates. If a soldier boasted a strong physical appearance, he also typically was considered to have impressive leadership abilities. If he were loyal, he also was rated as highly intelligent. The correlations proved way too consistent for Thorndike, who determined that officers’ impressions in one area of a soldier’s experience too often colored their impressions in another.

That practice holds true today. If someone is attractive, he also usually is considered smart. If a person appears enthusiastic, she often also is perceived as hard working. Friendly? Must be a good leader, too.

Priming the Halo Pump

When it comes to evaluating people, first is always foremost. People remember the first piece of data they receive about a person, and their subsequent impressions are shaped by that data.

One of the earliest and most enduring studies of first impressions and the halo effect was completed by Solomon Asch, who asked people to evaluate the personalities of two individuals named Alan and Ben.

Alan was: intelligent – industrious – impulsive – critical – stubborn – envious

Ben was: envious – stubborn – critical – impulsive – industrious – intelligent

Obviously, the series of adjectives used to describe Alan is simply reversed for Ben. Here’s the catch: Although the same words appeared in a different sequence, test subjects always viewed Alan significantly more favorably than Ben. Even Alan’s negative characteristics were seen more positively, because of the positivity applied to the initial descriptors.

If someone you view positively possesses a stubbornness streak, you consider him a person who takes a principled stand. On the other hand, if you already have a negative impression of that person, the stubbornness can be seen as a sign of inflexibility and unwillingness to consider new ideas.

Next time, I’ll explain how you can leverage your own “halo” and what to do when you’re not exactly an angel!

How Resilient Are You?

What’s the single most important skill that a sales professional — and, really, all professionals — can have?

This is a question I often ask workshop participants. And I often receive the usual responses: Product knowledge! Adaptation! Listening!

When that happens, I nod as I move the conversation from person to person. When I finish, I pause a beat and say, “It’s none of those.”

The single most important skill that a sales professional can possess is resilience: The ability to recover from failure. And I don’t mean bounce back; I mean bounce forward.

University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, who is director of the Positive Psychology Center and former president of the American Psychological Association, has done groundbreaking research in this area.

One of his studies was done with the financial services giant Northwestern Mutual Life. When asked to review a survey given to prospective new NML salespeople, Dr. Seligman noted that they weren’t testing for resiliency. They added “resilience” to their hiring instrument and — voila!— the resilient salespeople who were hired wound up outselling everyone else.

How do you become more resilient?

The first thing you must do is be aware of what’s going on in your head, often referred to as your mental dialogue. Your self-talk impacts thoughts, emotions, actions, careers and, ultimately, the rest of your life.

The following quote, attributed to everyone from Mahatma Gandhi and Ralph Waldo Emerson to the president of a leading supermarket chain, illustrates this cause and effect:

Watch your thoughts, they become words;

Watch your words, they become actions;

Watch your actions, they become habits;

Watch your habits, they become your character;

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

The point is made even more elegantly in one of my favorite books of all time, As a Man Thinketh, by philosopher James Allen and originally published in 1902. (It may very well have been the first “self-help” book.)

“Man is made or unmade by himself; in the armory of thought he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself,” Allen wrote. “He also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself heavenly mansions of joy and strength and peace.”

What are you building?

If you want to become more resilient, it starts by dealing with your thoughts and whether or not they are aligned with reality.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

Why You Should Be the Last Person to Whisper in Somebody’s Ear

We all have tendencies of thought, patterns that influence our thinking.

These are often referred to as cognitive illusions or biases. But perhaps the root of all biases is availability bias — meaning we give the most credence to what we can most easily recall. If we remember an occurrence quickly without much effort, we find it perfectly suited for whatever the question is before us. For perfect examples of this, look no further than your relationship with your spouse or significant other.

People in relationships often share the burden of household responsibilities. One of the main areas of contention between couples is “fair share” — as in, “Is the other person doing his or her fair share of the chores around here?”

The conflict occurs when one person believes he is doing more than the other. What might really be happening, though, is that both individuals are falling prey to the bias of availability. What you remember, and therefore exaggerate, is the last time you did the dishes, or you took out the trash, or you made the bed. In your mind, you think you always do something, and the other person never does it. See any potential problems?

Availability Bias at Work

Availability bias also can cause problems at the office, as your brain substitutes one question for another. Let’s say your vice president of engineering asks you to recommend the best-qualified supplier to provide exhaust systems for your company’s new engine. And in the instant of the conversation you say, “Well, we should go with Wilson’s Exhausts.”

What may have taken place in your mind is not a careful analysis based on price, reliability, quality and suitability for this particular engine. Rather, you might just have recommended any exhaust system provider you can remember. Your brain may have substituted the question, “Who’s the best?” with “Who can you name?”

Availability also most impacts us when we are trying to gauge the relative size of a category or the frequency of an occurrence. How large is the market for red laser wall levels? (Huge! I used one this weekend!) How often are Wall Street traders arrested for illegal activity? (All the time, I read an article about another one yesterday.)

The insufficiency of the reasoning in these examples is obvious, but it is the rare individual who will submit to the more difficult task of finding out the actual statistics that would answer either of the above questions. Many people simply don’t want to work that hard. We take the path of least intellectual effort. We’re human.

Positively Leveraging Availability

How can you leverage this concept of availability bias to ethically win the heart and mind of your target? It’s imperative to keep the value of your “ask” in front of your target. Time dims people’s positive memories, so you must find ways to maintain your expertise, your value and your shared experiences.

A reminder email, revisiting a key point casually through conversation, or a communiqué augmenting or amplifying your position with a new piece of information all work beautifully.

Remember that there is a balance between keeping your contributions top of mind and … well, stalking. Persuasive professionals know the difference and rarely cross the line.

Frequency certainly impacts one’s ability for recall, but other factors leading to availability bias include dramatic events (winning an important award or surviving a tragedy), intense personal experiences (receiving accolades or suffering public embarrassment), vivid descriptions (created by using language or graphics) and a related notion called the “recency effect” (in which people remember the last thing they heard on a topic).

When you can summon dramatic public events, do so. If your company is generating positive press regarding a purchase or other strategic move, that is the time to reach out to new prospects. If someone undergoes an intense and negative experience related to your “ask” (“The trade show was terrible! I had to set up the booth until midnight and then I had to work the show for nine hours the next day! I was exhausted when speaking with prospects.”), that is the time to push for agreement on your objective (“See? This is exactly why I’m recommending we ask the board for budget dollars for either more staff on site or expanded outsourcing!”)

Use vivid descriptions instead of just numbers: “The new retail space we’re recommending could house AT&T Stadium,” instead of “The space we’re recommending is one million square feet.”

And, of course, before someone makes a key decision, keep the recency effect in mind. Literally, the last thing you want the decision-maker to hear is your input. People remember — and give added weight — to the final comment they’ve heard on the topic. You want to be the last person whispering in their ear.

How to Battle Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is always at work inside our brains. Why? Because it’s human nature to seek out facts, statistics and opinions that we think prove our existing beliefs — even if those beliefs are incorrect! 

In other words, we see things not always as they actually are, but as we want to see them.

Here are three examples that convey the aggressive power of confirmation bias in our professional lives: 

  • Your boss thinks his latest idea will give your company a competitive edge, so you and your team automatically skew market research and competitive analyses from the biased perspective of wanting to please your boss. 
  • During a series of interviews for a new sales manager, you become fixated on one or two factors (Big Ten university programs produce the best candidates, for example, or the chosen applicant must have previously overseen a million-dollar account) — leading you to potentially overlook other, better-qualified candidates. 
  • Initial sales of a recently launched product surpass expectations, prompting you to increase production without considering that customer interest might quickly diminish after the excitement of something new wears off — potentially leaving you with excess inventory. 

Confirmation bias works actively in our personal lives, too. Consider these two examples:

  • You’re thinking about purchasing a Tesla and now notice more Teslas sharing the road with you, which reinforces your belief that a Tesla is better than — and will make you happier than — a Lexus or a BMW.  
  • You’re worried your son might be experimenting with opioids but before you can have a conversation with him about it, you find a wad of cash in his jacket pocket and conclude that it’s drug money. 

In short, confirmation bias can dramatically — and often falsely — influence everything from how you manage your department to how you interact with family members. And in every case, it removes the element of objectivity from the equation. 

Research Proves Confirmation Bias Runs Rampant

But don’t just take my word for it. A study published in the September 2018 issue of Current Biology suggests that confirmation bias applies not only to abstract or high-level thinking but also to low-level decision-making.

How low? Consider this: A team of researchers from Germany and Israel asked study participants to watch white dots on a computer screen and determine whether they were moving in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Next, participants observed a second set of animated dots and were asked to determine the direction in which those dots were moving. 

Now, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds, considering the dots in question were surrounded by other randomly moving dots. But still…

Researchers found the participants who indicated the first batch of dots moved in a clockwise direction did the same with the second batch — even if the dots were moving counter-clockwise! — and vice versa. 

“This is kind of scary,” Jaime de la Rocha, a neuroscientist at the Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute in Spain (who wasn’t involved in the study), told “When people are evaluating evidence, they are using a filter created by previous decisions.”

Scary, indeed. 

Sometimes, falling prey to confirmation bias won’t make much difference in the final outcome, such as determining the direction in which animated dots are moving on a screen. But in other cases — making decisions about an important business deal, launching a new program or hiring for a critical position — confirmation bias can lead to debilitating results.

Why? Because it provides people with all the reasons they deem necessary to support their own claims and aims, with nothing to refute.

So how do you overcome confirmation bias? In persuasion situations in which you are attempting to ethically win the heart and mind of someone else, make time for due diligence. Look at all relevant data sets to make sure that what you’re proposing is the right thing to do. Also consider seeking input from people who hold opposing viewpoints — or who at least aren’t as close to a specific project or circumstance as you. 

Once you’re convinced that your actions will be best for you, for others and for the specific situation at hand, acknowledge any confirmation bias that might be in play, and then don’t hesitate to go against the grain. 

After all, you want to get to “yes” the right way — and for all the right reasons.

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

A Blueprint for ‘Yes’ (Mark’s Persuasion Priority Action Plan: Part 2)

In order to succeed in your persuasion efforts, you need a persuasion priority action plan. The one I like to use involves seven steps, and I covered three of them in a previous post.

Here they are:

Step 1: Clearly state who is the one person you want to do what.

Step 2: Determine why this is important for you, your target and your organization.

Step 3: Build your quantitative and qualitative case

Step 4: Plan your language (adjectives, metaphors, examples, stories and humor).

Step 5: Assess your primary target and other key influencers. 

Step 6: Map the persuasion territory.

Step 7: Create your step-by-step actions: When do you do what with whom, and why? 

In this post, I will cover the next three steps, saving the final one for next time.

Plan your language (adjectives, metaphors, examples, stories and humor).

What savvy phrases can you use to describe your request or facets of your request?

• A compelling argument

• A sensitive situation

• A crucial decision

Questions work, too.

• Do we want to surrender to the competition?

Similarly, what figures of speech (metaphor, simile, analogy) can you create to describe your request or subsequent risks or rewards?

• “This guy is the Payton Manning of sales directors.”

• “That part of the country is a marketing black hole.”

• “The likelihood of the board approving that approach is less than that of Kim Kardashian wearing a turtleneck tomorrow.” 

Using storytelling best practices, what brief and relatable story you can develop to justify your request, address potential challenges or describe imminent rewards. Be sure to have a point, include a captivating open, establish a plot, insert an unexpected element and conclude with a learning point. 

Anticipate resistance and objection. How will you respond when someone says, “It costs too much”? Or, “We don’t need it”? Or “Now is not the right time”?

Step 5: Assess your primary target and other key players. 

You certainly don’t need to list every person who might be involved in your request, but it’s critical to include your primary target and key players. Write down their names and titles, your impression of their personalities, and your perception of their preferences for communication and information.   

For example:

• Steve Miller, VP Field Operations; expressive; text messages; just the facts 

• Jerry Matherstone, General Counsel, reserved; face-to-face; all the details

Using a table like the one below can help you sort through these details.

Jerry MatherstoneGeneral CounselReserved; little sense of humor Face to face (no email) Wants all the details
Steve MillerVP Field OperationsExpressive; likes to joke Text messagesJust the facts

Step 6: Map the persuasion territory.

If your persuasion priority involves more than a few people, represents significant dollars and is likely to take some time, you should map the persuasion territory. Here’s what I mean: When strategizing your persuasion approach answer the following five questions:

  1. Who are the key players?
  2. On a scale of -10 to 10 (10 being highest), what is each player’s influence in the organization?
  3. On a scale of -10 to 10  (10 being completely in support of your idea), to what extent is each player applying that influence? 
  4. How easily do you think each person might change his or her position (low, medium, high)?
  5. What significant relationships exist among key players?

Again, use a table like the one below to help you sort through the responses to these questions:

NameOrg. InfluenceFor or AgainstChangeableRelationships
Jerry Matherstone+8+7Medium+ Steve Miller
Steve Miller+5
-4High– Sally Mack

Use this information to map your persuasion territory.

Next time, I’ll focus on the final step of my persuasion priority action plan.

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

Being Funny Can Make You More Persuasive

Research conducted over the past 40 years suggests that watching comedians or other funny bits improves people’s capacity to solve problems.

Here’s proof:

• Alice M. Isen, a psychologist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore in the late 1980s, found that people who watched a short series of television ”bloopers” were better able to problem-solve than those who watched a film about math or physically exercised prior to being presented with a problem. 

• The cognitive neuroscientist Mark Beeman found that showing test subjects stand-up routine clips from the late comedian Robin Williams increased the success rate of solving insight problems by 20 percent.

• The journal Neuropsychologia published a study in 2013 by Stanford researchers that linked humor to higher IQ scores.

What does all this mean for your persuasion efforts? Humor helps people make smarter decisions. Being funny (in the right ways) can propel your persuasion attempts as effectively as one of the Roadrunner’s rocket sleds powered by the Acme Corporation.

Give it a try.

Try a New Way to Think About Thinking

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist and author Daniel Kahneman, we possess two “systems” for thinking: one that processes information very quickly, and one that does so more slowly and requires significantly more effort.

Here’s the thing: Most of us don’t really like to think all that hard. As humans, we rely on what comes to mind with the least amount of cognitive strain. We also don’t always act rationally — rarely going to the trouble of, say, doing the math or weighing the pros and cons of a decision.

But don’t be too hard on yourself: We act that way to survive in a post-modern world where the amount of information we are exposed to has grown exponentially, but the basic architecture of our brains hasn’t changed since the likes of Australopithecus africanus roamed the earth. We employ mental shortcuts to survive. Sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t.

Discovering Heuristics and Biases

Heuristics are supportive cognitive shortcuts that help us make good decisions in times of complexity. Biases, on the other hand, impede decision making. Sometimes, biases also are referred to as cognitive illusions, because much like an optical illusion, they twist our thinking about reality.

So how do we distinguish between the two? It’s often difficult to parse heuristics and biases, because the same factors that impact our thinking also impact our thinking about our thinking. For example, sometimes we fall prey to something called base-rate neglect. This is when we ignore statistics in favor of anecdotal incidents.

Heuristics and biases are built into our psychological makeup and are so pervasive that we rarely even notice them working inside our heads. Plus, they feel so natural, so how could they be wrong? If you make what turns out to be a good decision, you’ve just used a heuristic. If the decision results in a negative outcome, you’ve succumbed to mental bias. As one psychology student so aptly put it: “Heuristics are helpful biases. Biases are hurtful heuristics.”

Regardless of how you might categorize these mental patterns, understanding and labeling them will help you consider these cognitive processes more easily and create strategic persuasion campaigns based on them. They also will help your targets make better decisions.

Don’t worry about getting too hung up on trying to determine whether something is a heuristic or a bias. Simply concentrate on what these mental tendencies mean to you in terms of your persuasion efforts.

Effective Persuasion Requires Effort, But Don’t Overwork Yourself

In previous posts, I’ve written about the importance of taking into consideration how much your persuasion priority is worth to you.

Now, here is another question to ask yourself: Will my efforts unreasonably and negatively impact my labor intensity? Will it require me to work more hours, juggle more tasks and take on more burdens? Is there a more effective way of achieving my persuasion priority?

One of the reasons more people aren’t more effective with their persuasion attempts is because they require too much additional effort. This concept is nothing new; too much work leads to the abandonment of ideals and priorities. The reduction of labor intensity often is considered a fundamental component of self-improvement. If you want to continue to develop and grow, it’s essential to reduce your labor intensity such that you can free your capacity for new experiences, new people and new information. The fastest way to understand this concept is to explore input and output.

Conducting a training workshop counts as input; changes in employee behavior and the overall business are the result (or the output). Conducting a focus group is the input; the accurate understanding and takeaway of the session is the output. The fastest way to reduce your labor intensity is to focus on the result, not the input. 

If your persuasion priority is to oversee a new product to market, and you want to gauge your retail channel’s likely demand, focus groups are one way to do so. If you’re able to attain a statistically sound assessment with only five focus groups, don’t plan eight. Endeavor to exert just enough effort to achieve the desired result.

Persuasion always requires effort, but you need to ensure the effort is commensurate with the payoff.  Assess the labor intensity of all your persuasion attempts.

Sweet Emotions: Choose Your Words and Phrases Wisely

Logic makes you think, emotions make you act. You’ve heard this before, right? But you know what you haven’t heard? Someone telling you how to leverage emotions.

Until now.

The language you use and the phrases you choose can help you stir emotions of the person you’re trying to persuade. One way to create an emotional response is by using adjectives in your persuasive conversations.

Relax: I’m not going to go all “Schoolhouse Rock”  on you, but here are some great examples you can use to punch up your language.

• Adjectives can be absolute, comparative or superlative.

Good, better or best. Caution: Don’t overuse superlatives. A few add impact; using them a lot blunts their effect and erodes your credibility. Because not everything can be the best and the most.

“The Basic package is good. The Open Road is better. The Enthusiast is better still. But the Legendary is the best — and most comprehensive — package we offer. That’s where we should start.” 

Notice how this builds anticipation (a fundamental emotion) and finally joy at reaching the summit of your offering.

(Note that I don’t say the biggest, most expensive package is also the most popular. It makes consumers suspicious when your most expensive is also — curiously enough — your most popular. If it’s true, fine. But otherwise, avoid it.)

• Turn nouns and verbs into adjectives by adding an ending.

Try “-ic” or “-ish” or “-ary” or “-est,” as in “Our savviest customers typically put 20 to 25 percent down.”

Savvy is an adjective, but what’s really great about it for this example is that it also is aspirational. Everyone wants to be savvy.

• Add an adjective to a noun.

Understand that — when working with you — your target will make important decisions. “Decision” is a noun; “decide” is a verb. So add an adjective in front of that “decision.”

– A big  decision.
– A critical  decision
– A crucial  decision.
– Afar‐reaching  decision.
– A significant  decision.

“Picking the coverage for your Harley‐Davidson experience is a significant decision, and I want to make sure you have all the facts.”

Another variation involves stressing to your target that they are making not only important decisions, but also informeddecisions. Your role is really to educate others to help them make the best decision possible. Here are some variations:

– We want you to make a knowledgeable decision.
– We want you to make an educated decision.
– We want you to make a wise decision.
– We want you to make an enlightened decision.

“Picking the coverage for your Harley‐Davidson experience is crucial, and I want to make sure you have all the facts so you can make an informed decision.”

Note: It can also be helpful to identify decisions as “responsible” or even “irresponsible”:

– The responsible thing to do is consider and plan for these possibilities.
– It would be irresponsible not to consider these possibilities.

These descriptors amplify the importance of the decision and subsequently the significance of your advice. This goes a long way toward creating a trusting relationship.

Similarly, when talking about decisions that involve an element of risk, make your language more interesting by trying some of these variations:

– It’s about diminishing risk.
– It’s about lowering risk.
– It’s about decreasing risk.
– It’s about downsizing your risk.
– It’s about paring down your risk.

“Having peace of mind is all about diminishing risk. And that’s why I’d like to talk to you about the Harley‐Davidson Guaranteed Asset Protection program.”

Fear — specifically fear of loss — is probably the most powerful human emotion. We are much more influenced to act (or not) by fearing what we might lose, rather than what we have to gain.

I consider language to be of crucial importance to your persuasion success. The words you use and the phrases that you choose have a huge bearing on what others think, say and do.

Give these ideas a try immediately.

Will Your Persuasion Priority Enhance Your Professional Skills?

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of determining if your persuasion priority is really a priority.

Remember that your persuasion priority must be specific, significant and meaningful to you and your organization, and realistic enough to be attainable. It also must be set with others in mind, because if you can help them get what they want, you’ll ultimately get what you want.

If you pursue your persuasion priority, be sure to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will it improve your communication skills — such as writing a compelling email, facilitating a brainstorming session or making an executive presentation?
  2. Does achieving your persuasion priority add to your actual or abstract organizational abilities?
  3. Might it help you build relationships, hone your problem-solving talents or sharpen your decision-making abilities?
  4. Will it help you attain mental toughness to compartmentalize a challenge and put it off for later while you work on other more time-sensitive issues?
  5. Will it increase your negotiation skills?
  6. Does it require you to consider more carefully your proficiency at work-life balance?

All of these potential improvements can be considered more qualitative than quantitative financial gains

Breaking Down Your Skills

Keep in mind that the fastest way to achieve competency in a skill is to break that skill down into its various components. 

Far too many people think far too broadly when it comes to analyzing a skill. Take the ability to make an executive presentation, which some might categorize sweepingly as  “presentation skills.” That’s a mistake. 

Making a presentation involves researching your topic and your audience’s perspectives on the topic, as well as blending third-party expertise with your own insights. Then you need to develop your content: the opening, a middle section, examples, anticipation of questions, response preparation and even a recovery plan for gaffes or an unexpected comment. Then comes the creation of an effective closer that leaves your audience thinking, knowing or doing something different. Each of these components in and of themselves could be considered a skill set.

These skill sets might come easier to some people than others, but just because you struggle to achieve competency doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue a given skill — or a given persuasion priority.