How can you get a customer to purchase your products or service? How can you convince employees to work harder and with more productivity? How can you drive organizational change? These are some of the most challenging questions every middle market company leader faces, and bestselling author Jonah Berger has answers.

A world-renowned expert on behavioral change and a Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Berger says that pushing people to change simply won’t work, but identifying and then removing the barriers that keep people from changing will.

Berger has helped hundreds of organizations drive change, from Apple to Nike to many middle market companies. We chatted with Berger about his new book, The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind, asking how the book’s lessons in change might be applicable for middle market company, but identifying and then removing the barriers that keep people from changing will. 

Image courtesy: Deborah Feingold

How do you define the word catalyst, and why is being a catalyst important for middle-market leaders?

Berger: When we think about changing minds, whether it's the customer's mind or even changing organizational culture, we focus a lot on pushing. We think that if we just provide more reasons, more information, more facts and figures, people will come around. But as leaders know, when you push people, they often don't go along. They often push back. So the core idea of this book is describing a better way to change minds and action.

The book asks “what's preventing people from changing, what obstacles are in the way, and how can we mitigate them?” You don’t get people to change by pushing them, but by removing barriers to change.

Why aren't “the facts” enough to change minds?

Berger: Because people aren't chairs. When we push a chair, it moves. When we push people, they may push back. “The Catalyst” describes the five key barriers that often prevent change. There’s an acronym for these barriers, which is R-E-D-U-C-E, and that stands for reactance, endowments, distance, uncertainty, and corroborating evidence.

In terms of reactance, people have an ingrained anti-persuasion radar. When they know someone is trying to persuade them, alarm bells go off and their defenses go up: they ignore the message, delete the email, stop paying attention to the ad. They think about all the reasons why you're wrong, so they're counter-arguing. Because of reactance, people just don’t move when we want them to.

So how can we reduce reactance?

Berger: People like having a sense of freedom or control of their destiny. Why did I pick this supplier? Because I like them. Why did I chose this product? Because I like it. Rather than telling people what to do or trying to persuade them, we need to allow for agency. When you make a presentation, for example, rather than saying how great your solution is, provide choices to the client. Because then they're focusing on what's good for them, so they're much more likely to pick one of the choices at the end. Not by pushing them, but by allowing them to have a role in the discussion.

Another way is to ask people rather than tell them. Ask the prospect questions: “What are you trying to achieve? Why aren't you satisfied with what you have already?" When they answer, they've participated in the process, which puts a stake in the ground.

Why is reducing uncertainty so important to driving change, and how can middle-market leaders do that?

Berger: Middle market companies are often what's called “challenger brands.” A target customer is using someone bigger, better known, and you’re saying “we may not be as big, but we care about you more." The challenge is that the prospect is uncertain. If I'm asking you to switch suppliers, I've got to learn your systems and make sure they work with my own. If you're asking to switch software packages, I've got to figure out how to integrate it with what I'm doing already. All these are costs.

How do you solve this uncertainty problem? Many Software as a Service (SaaS) companies use freemium. Think about Dropbox, which says, “go to our site and get two gigabytes of storage for free. You don't have to believe us, you can experience it yourself." Then they try to upgrade you to a premium version. You're willing to pay for the paid version because you've convinced yourself it's good and Dropbox has resolved uncertainty by lowering the upfront cost.

Now If I'm you’re an industrial supplier, you may not have a freemium option but you can lower the upfront cost, lower that uncertainty barrier. Maybe you can offer a test drive, a trial, a money-back guarantee. It's the same principle as freemium, but can be applied a lot more broadly.

How can middle-market leaders know when more corroborating evidence is needed to change someone’s mind?

Berger: It depends on what you’re trying to move, a pebble or a boulder. When you're trying to move a boulder, often you need more help, or in the case of changing minds, you need more corroborating evidence. If you're trying to sell someone a $9 stapler, one person telling them it's good is probably enough. When you're trying to get people to implement a $9 million digital transformation or $9 billion overhaul or buy some heavy machinery that costs a lot of money, one dose of proof isn't going to be enough.

There's an old proverb: If one person says you have a tail, you laugh. But if five people say you have a tail, you turn around and check. It's exactly the same in cases when you're trying to move a boulder: you need multiple other people saying the same thing, so more corroborating evidence is needed.

What else would you like to tell middle-market leaders about becoming better catalysts?

Berger: We tend to push when we’re trying to change minds or change organizational culture. We make presentations that don’t work. Middle market company leaders have got to understand those barriers and take a different approach. You've got to stop pushing, and figure out how to mitigate the barriers to change. If you understand those five key barriers, you can change anything. That's what “The Catalyst” is all about.