When a U.S. President Won’t Be Persuaded — What Then?

The first day of teaching graduate and undergraduate persuasion classes, I’ve always included a discussion of the primary enemy of effective persuasion — unexamined assumptions.

We all base our views and most of our actions on assumptions. To be persuasive, it’s important to understand the assumptions of others and how our own differ from or overlap with those.  The formulation of effective arguments depends on such knowledge.

The Trump administration likes to keep people, particularly the press, off-guard with regard to underlying assumptions.  Such knowledge is therefore difficult to ascertain.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer regularly argues that controversial choices made by President Trump are similar to those made by President Obama, Bush or Reagan.  On the other hand, the president and his coterie of enablers regularly demean the actions of those same presidents.  So, which is it?  Are they guided by the choices of their predecessors or not? They really don’t want you to know.

The term for such contrived confusion is strategic ambiguity.  The goal is to confound people.  Apparently, Trump Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is known for applying this strategy by overwhelming people.  Rather than roll out change incrementally so people understand and come to grips with it, he prefers to keep hitting them with “stuff” until they’re beside themselves.

So, what does this mean for persuasion?  Can it be used to influence people like this?

Persuasion is something done with people, not to them. Compared to other forms of influence, it tends to be up front.  At its best it relies on reason, evidence, expert opinion, experience, passionate argument and facts.  When people act rationally, when they share similar rules and at least respect each other, persuasion can be very effective.  It’s fair to say that while the preferable means of influence in civil society is persuasion, it usually does not work directly with people who prefer to coerce and manipulate.

Does that leave us with becoming bullies and manipulators?  Must we sink to the level of liars who think little of us?  If coupled with power, perhaps not.

Eliot Cohen, former Counselor to Condoleezza Rice and Director of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins, believes that eventually Trump will make too many enemies — trounce on too many toes.  Payback for those who supported him at high levels will be on an installment plan lasting a long time.  Those with power who see the light may best the president at his own game.  The question is whether this will happen soon enough to protect democracy.

That’s where protesters seeking to persuade can make a difference.  They can urge the powerful to see how they’re being duped and used.  They can alert those with the capacity to confront Trump that their time to be harmed will surely come — that people who think so little of those outside their circle are not in the habit of keeping promises.

Persuasion is useful to expedite change even with those who coerce and manipulate.  It can influence those with power to stand up and take action.  It can help them realize that the tentacles of deception so beloved by the Trump team will one day reach their doors and harm the country they love — what former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Christiane Amanpour is among the key dangers we now face.

The sooner those with power outside the Trump circle begin to worry about such things, the sooner they realize that they’re being deceived, perhaps being used, the sooner they’ll feel the pressure on their toes predicted by Eliot Cohen and begin to fight fire with fire.  In that sense, all of us have power.

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Hell Hath No Fury — This Time Let’s Make It Stick!

Was the Women’s March on Washington and around the world a one-day event — a one-time venting?  It looked to me more like the women’s protests of the 1960’s.  My irascible, tireless friend, mentor and fellow professor, Betty Friedan, would have been overjoyed to see over a million women crowding the streets and walkways of their cities. She would have agreed with Gloria Steinem that the wake-up call finally happened.  For so many women walking and watching, it was a moment of precious light in the mist of looming darkness.

We get it now.  The job is not over. The work of feminists before us need not have been in vain.  In fact, we now realize that so much of what was accomplished is at risk.  Women around the world have heard that message and we are a force with which to be reckoned. This is one time when “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” actually applies.

One of the beauties of the Women’s Marches was the depth in age.  There was no sense of generations divided.  Women from diverse backgrounds mobilized.  It took an instigating force, a man who won the presidency despite his crass disparagement of women.  It took a sinking-in period after the election to alert women to the dangers for themselves and their families.  It took Hillary Clinton to show us how a woman who gave it her all, who was — in Barack Obama’s own words — far more qualified than previous presidential candidates, was nevertheless held to a different, higher standard.

To borrow from sociologist Irving Goffman, we give male politicians more idiosyncrasy credits.  In short, they’re more readily excused for less than exemplary actions and character.  If we don’t understand that we’ve been inadvertently trained to be more critical of women, then we are victimized by our socialization.

People wanted to be excited about Hillary Clinton as if all elections can be like that of Barack Obama.  Many of us were unforgiving of what were touted by the media as her faults. We fell easily into the trap of exaggerating her shortcomings because she is a woman.

How often I’ve been asked, “But wasn’t she a flawed candidate?” as if Donald Trump is flawless.  The absurdity of that angers many women.  It reminds them of double standards to which they’re held at work — the  slippery criteria not used to judge men.

This election reminded women of how easy it is to find fault with us — to denigrate our appearance – offense often perpetrated by men who should look in the mirror.

We were reminded over the last few months to support each other — to avoid slipping into the cultural trap of picking women apart based on the ways we cut our hair, walk, and express ourselves.  Many of us were reminded that “bitch” and “nasty woman” are disparaging labels from which we needn’t flee.  They are used to unsettle us, to render us demure.

As I’ve said at the beginning of many of my speeches, “You’re looking at a bitch!”  It brings laughter.  But to me, it means that I refuse to run from labels used to silence — and haven’t for some time.  Such easy labeling hounded Hillary Clinton.  And when that wasn’t enough, Russia and James Comey had to help stop her in her tracks.

This time we need to make sure that our mutual support sticks.  That means at every level, not merely during marches.  We must remember the anger — renew and refresh it.  We must be as one no matter our age or stage.  We must write, post, and speak out and never let our senators and representatives think we have become quiet again.

We need not have voted for the same candidate or voted at all.  We’re awake now.  As California Senator Kamal Harris said, women’s issue are the economy, climate change, defense, safety, infrastructure, health and education — to name only a few. Women’s issues are all issues that make America and the world better places to live.

The Women’s Marches showed that we have the power to make a huge difference.  Let’s keep the feeling strong in our hearts firing our determination.  Let’s assure that we use our individual and collective power.  Let’s refuse to allow men confusing great privilege with greatness to smirk, dismiss and patronize as they obstruct our rightful path.

Posted in Gender Issues, Politics | 3 Comments

The Wake-Up Call Happened Today

So proud of the hundreds of thousands who marched today. Right after the election, I wrote about the “wake-up call”. Today we saw how awakened women have become. For years we’ve fallen silent, thinking the job of obtaining equality and respect was over. Not so, we learned during this election.

I’m reposting the blog I wrote about that wake-up call right after the election.  It received over 6,000 likes only having been posted briefly by Huffington Post. Women are now awake, as Gloria Steinem said today, not going to sleep again.

The wake-up call blog here.

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As Women March Around the World — A Look Back and Forward

I wrote this article over a year ago and posted it also at Big Think. With women marching all over the world, and especially in Washington D.C., I thought it would be good to repost. It’s exciting to see women get together to stand up and be heard. As mentioned in this article, we’ve been getting too quiet. Watching women around the world taking a stand, realizing the fight is far from over, we may well move forward again, louder, more confident, and insistent that progress at work and in other arenas will get the boost it has so badly needed.


Most young women in the workforce don’t remember firsthand the battles their mothers and grandmothers fought over issues that are still relevant today. Among those who’ve read about them or learned secondhand, many women have taken pains to separate themselves from the purportedly drab, angry feminists with whom they have difficulty identifying.

During the 1980s and 1990s, such disparaging labels as “ball-breakers,” “ice queens,” and “female mafia” were imposed on women who often only sought equal pay and a voice in the proceedings. The so-called “mommy wars” concept caught on in the media focusing on the differences between women working outside the home and those who chose to stay (and work) at home. It was more a headline grabber than an actual reality. Elitist, too, since stagnating purchasing power required most mothers to work. Nevertheless, the “mommy wars” grabbed attention, and the categories it imposed still cause harm today. Let it be said clearly and loudly: just as there are not two types of men, so there are not two types of women.

With all the manufactured anger and derision, is it any wonder that, given a choice, the next generations of women took another, quieter path? Who could blame them? Betty Friedan predicted that would be their choice when she wrote The Second Stage, which addressed the question of how to live the portion of equality that had been won. In the midst of writing The Second Stage, Friedan correctly saw that the future would not be rosy for women. “I sense other victories we thought were won yielding illusory gains,” she wrote. “I see new dimensions to problems we thought were solved.”

There was at that time, however, the promise of young men attending college and getting MBAs alongside women. What their fathers had found unsettling, it was thought, these young men would consider natural. It seemed a reasonable expectation unless you taught (as I did) at a business school where little changed in terms of male-oriented cases, books, and articles. Female professors with tenure were quite rare. Learning, as female students noted, was one-dimensional in the incubators of future leaders.

At the same time, men became increasingly inclined toward silence about negative views of women — some because they felt under siege even if they were in favor of equality for women. Separating inadvertent and minor offenses against women from the major ones could have been done more effectively. Many men became actively involved in perpetuating the culture of excluding women; after all, it was a more comfortable and rewarding arena in which to reside — to say nothing of the fact that women were directly competing with men for jobs. Indeed, it’s one thing to be theoretically in favor of gender equality at work and quite another to face the possible loss of your livelihood. Such were the ignition factors of backlash.

Also, women grew tired of struggling on behalf of their gender. Always having to prove commitment to the job and saying little of their children to prevent the perception of being distracted became taxing. We continue to see the effects. Helena Morrissey, chief executive of the Newton subsidiary of BNY Mellon and a leading campaigner for gender equality in the workplace, told The Financial Times, “It’s so tedious that there still seems such a problem.”

In 1979, Radcliffe’s president Matina Horner described a “crisis of confidence” facing women in the choices they encountered between family and career. This was especially true 10 years later for those women who worked full-time outside and inside the home, as described in 1989 in The Second Shift. As Gloria Steinem has said, “The truth is that women can’t be equal outside the home until men are equal in it.”

The confidence crisis continues today, as Katty Kay and Claire Shipman have written in The Confidence Code. Women tend to negotiate lower salaries than they deserve and to believe they must be 100 percent qualified for a job or promotion.

More women are leaving fund-management careers. They’ve had it with sexist slights and corporate cultures that demean their value, even though research shows that female fund managers have better track records and that diverse groups in this field are more effective than those dominated by white males. Sixty-five percent of female fund managers reported regularly experiencing sexist behavior at the office. Their male colleagues also report seeing such behavior directed at women on a regular basis. Moreover, Catalyst research recently indicated a serious depletion of women in high-tech careers. They’re leaving shortly after they arrive.

It isn’t all bad news, of course. Women are succeeding as entrepreneurs. Pay equity in some sectors is almost where it should be, and young women enter the workplace more aware and with higher expectations. Increasingly, there are efforts to recruit women to the fields of science and engineering. Women are seeking graduate degrees and in larger numbers than ever before. Organizations have learned that hiring large numbers of women results in outperforming their competitors. Clearly women haven’t given up. They’re being realistic about where they’re valued and where they’re not and perhaps rightly realizing that to succeed in those areas they must leave the gender-equity fight largely to others.

How do we help women, and they help themselves, to move forward past the issues that concern them, impinge on their success, make them more tired than they need to be, and, instead, move forward in their careers while also enjoying their families? Here are a few important ways:

Reduce pressure on women to do it all — superbly. There is nothing new about this — women trying to “have it all” when we know no one can. Yet, the discussion about whether women can be all things to all people, including to themselves, is always popping up in the media. Let’s agree to stop it. The final answer to the question is: “No one can have it all.” Parenting takes a considerable toll. So does being among the “sandwich generation,” trying to care for young children and aging parents. Something has to give, as Arianna Huffington wrote in Thrive. It does not mean compromising on success, but rather redefining it.

Confidence comes from doing certain things very well. Some days, as author Elizabeth Gilbert proposes, let other people be better parents, better artists, better at whatever because none of us can be wonderful all the time. Women cannot progress in the workplace if they never cut themselves any slack.

Increase work-life reconciliation policies. Since 1990, other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of “work-family reconciliation” acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last. From The NYT op ed by Stephanie Coontz, “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” comes this conclusion: “Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.”

It’s time to make issues regarding women at work nonpartisan and to put more women in office. Democratic, Republican, and Independent voters work. Equal pay and equal opportunity to succeed belong to no single political party. We need to wrench these issues free of sides and pressure all government representatives to actually represent women, whenever and from wherever they decide to work.

Encourage organizations to notice and reward women’s contributions. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School professor and author of The Change Masters, describes most organizations as having “a preference for being guided by the past rather than the future, by what is already known rather than what is not yet known.” Reward systems in such companies are what Kanter terms “payoff-centered” rather than “investment centered.”

Women are an investment that research shows pays off. Yet, even in Silicon Valley where forward-thinking companies abound, women are not generally welcome at higher levels. As Nina Burleigh wrote in her Newsweek article, “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women”: “In inverse ratio to the forward-looking technology the community produces, it is stunningly backward when it comes to gender relations.”

Lessen Reliance on easy fixes. This is a call to get real. We must be somewhat critical here of the press and the blogosphere for the plethora of instant fixes that women have become especially inclined to accept as a means of learning the ropes at work. In an age of six ways to do anything, it’s easy to slip into thinking that if women were just a little more this way or that, they’d be fine. There are some advantages to such tips, but they do not adequately address, let alone fix, the larger problems of sexism, discrimination, inequitable pay, and appalling dearth of women at the highest levels of industry and government.

Band-Aid solutions give the wrong impression of what’s involved in getting ahead at work. Learning about politics, for example, is critical to functioning well in organizations. Leadership too. No one learns about these critical skills with a few tips. It’s important to study the work environment, be an avid observer, learn from others — male and female, stretch your style, and practice, practice, practice.

When we look back, it’s clear that women’s equality at work is an extremely tall order. As we move forward, the future will look very different from the past. Women are unlikely to be marching for equality in pay and promotions, but as attention turns once again to these issues, as women are feeling more empowered to expect equal treatment, more supported by other women, movement forward is likely to look like thousands upon thousands of candles in the mist.

Each day, each woman on her own, in small groups, or “circles” will make a difference. If we refuse to forget what has been accomplished, ignore or reframe labels that hold women back, and increase our political and leadership acumen, once again we will move the stone up the hill and this time refuse to let it slip.


Today as women march in the hundreds of thousands, we are not “candles in the mist.” Our voices are being heard around the world. It’s an exciting day to be a woman. Let’s make it an exciting time as well — one we’ll long remember as another chapter opens — continuing the hard work that has been done by women in the past. This is no time to give up! We are awake again!

Posted in Gender Issues, Politics | 1 Comment

Why Does President Obama Not Mention Hillary?

I’ve been wondering this for a few weeks now. You’d think she died. I’ve been expecting to hear President Obama and Vice President Biden say “We had an exceptional candidate.” But, instead, nothing. What’s the story?  Even in his last press conference today, again nothing.

President Obama and Michelle were in her corner toward the end of the campaign. Bill Clinton saved his campaign with his exceptional convention speech four years ago. President Obama whispered in Hillary’s ear a couple of months ago that he would be with her and yet here he is saying nothing about her.

Even if there are some hard feelings about whether he shared what he knew soon enough, he is the president. He can rise above those. And if there aren’t hard feeling between them, then let’s hear some praise for a race hard run. It’s the least the outgoing administration can do.

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What Are the Signs of a Government Turning Pathological?

In The Secret Handshake, written long before the post-election political maelstrom we’re now experiencing in the U.S. and in many countries around the world, four types of political arenas are described.  So, too, are the political styles of employees that suit them best.

All human organizations have some degree of political activity — positive and negative — ranging from minimally political to pathologically political.  Below is a description of pathological politics taken from The Secret Handshake.  You can decide for yourself if the U.S. government is healthy or perhaps precariously perched on the edge of pathology — if not worse.

Daily interactions are fractious when pathology exists.  Conflict is both long-lasting and pervasive.  Nearly every goal is achieved by going around the formal procedures and organization.  People tend to distrust each other.  Information  massaging is the only form of communication.  Out of necessity, people spend a lot of time watching their backs.

Unless leaders of such organizations become aware of and reverse pathology, they tend to self-destruct.  Unfortunately, they often take a lot of good people with them ruining careers to keep the pathology intact.

Below is a list from The Secret Handshake of “Tell-Tale Signs of Cultural Pathology” in groups, businesses and governments.

  1.  Frequent flattering of those in power coupled with abusiveness toward people in less powerful positions is a sure sign of creeping organizational pathology.  Flattery may not get you everywhere, but it is often used by those who fear they cannot advance on their own merits.
  2. Another sign of cultural degeneration is information massaging.  When hardly anyone says (and means) anything that might rock the boat, you can be sure that the organization is at least becoming or is pathological.  When people communicate via hint instead of directly expressing their views, the roots of pathology are present.
  3. “Poisoning the well,” is another political activity indicative of pathology in organizations and government.  The thing to look for is people frequently fabricating negative information about others.  They drop defaming information into conversations and meetings in the hope of ruining the target’s career chances.  Gossip and verbal backstabbing are common here.
  4. Some organizations are poisoned by the people in charge.  There’s no need to poison the well.  In such organizations there’s a cold indifference.  No one is valued  for long; in fact, everyone is dispensable — and feels that way.  The only way to survive is to become obsequious to those in charge and to get someone else before he or she gets you.
  5. Whenever there is a good deal of “fake left, go right” strategy — leading others in the wrong direction in order to look good oneself — organizational pathology can be found. A sense of organizational teamwork is absent as individuals’ careers are sacrificed to save those who are misleading them.  Sometimes teams mislead teams, with the spoils going to the victor — the one that faked the best.

If you are a political purist or anything other than a street fighter or manipulator, it is improbable that you will last long in this type of setting.  Besides, the people who run such political arenas don’t trust political purists or team players with the best interests of positive organizational goals in mind.  So, the people hired are mostly flatterers and liars facilitating the deterioration of the organization, what management expert Henry Mintzberg described as “scavengers that swarm over a carcass” in terms of ethics and constructive productivity.

Does this sound familiar?  If so, send this description to your senators and representatives.  They may need the help.

Posted in Leadership, Shadow Campus | 3 Comments

A Scary Post-Trump Election Form of Reporting – Pathetic Make-Nice News

We should prepare ourselves for the emergence of a form of reporting that surely has existed but not on the scale we’re likely to soon experience. With Donald Trump attacking news outlets and individual reporters — denying them access when he doesn’t like what they report — intimidation of some journalists is to be expected.

The PEOTUS team has been planning new ways of treating the press at the White House that may well involve rewarding favorites.  It doesn’t take a prescient observer to predict that under such circumstances make-nice to the president news will be on the rise.

CNN Brian Stelter’s contentious interview with BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith, lecturing him on good journalism after Trump put both in the same basket of enemies, is an example.  Smith made an important point about this kind of your-dog-is-worse-than-my dog bickering between journalists:

I think — you know, there’s obviously an attempt to divide the press, to turn us on each other and to turn reasonable differences about editorial decisions into screaming matches between us on this show. I think that’s a trap that the media has obviously repeatedly fallen into over the last couple of years, but I think it’s better not to right now.

CNN’s recent New Day interview of Representative Jerry Nadler (Dem – N.Y.) by Alisyn Camerota also had some hallmarks of compensatory, make-nice to Donald Trump press. On the same day, CNN’s David Gregory was critical of John Lewis’ decision.  And while that is fair enough on its own, with some exceptions CNN’s televised coverage has taken a tilt toward kowtowing to Trump since he attacked their journalistic integrity.

My article on “Courage as a Skill” in The Harvard Business Review describes the steps required to make extremely difficult ethical decisions. Congressman John Lewis made a thoughtful, personal and courageous decision to not attend Donald Trump’s inauguration — especially given the PEOTUS’s tendency to retaliate for what he perceives as personal slights.  Representative Lewis didn’t demand that others join him or engage in incivility.

In Lewis’ estimation, given Donald Trump’s derogatory campaign comments about minorities, people with disabilities, and women conjoined with the intelligence report received by the public and by Congress behind closed doors, he could not in good conscience attend the inauguration.

Using Representatives John Lewis and Jerry Nadler, and others, to engage in make-nice news to appease Donald Trump, if that is indeed the case, is not only bad journalistic form, it’s an insult and threat to a free and responsible press.


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