Here’s a scenario: You’re managing a team of shift workers, and you’ve got to increase your manning levels on the second and third shifts — you know, the unpopular ones that hardly anybody wants to be assigned to.

When you announce the change, people are unhappy. They’re sure that they get more done on the day shift. They explain that when they work days, they don’t have to be calling home to see whether the kids are doing their homework, or worry whether their spouse is off drinking in a bar rather than home watching TV. Some of the intellectuals on the crew lecture you about circadian rhythms, and explain that day workers get better sleep and are more alert for their next shift.

Cold, hard facts
But you know that the change is necessary, and on top of that, you know why. You have the data to prove that spreading the work more evenly among shifts is the most efficient way to meet the company’s new, ambitious production targets.

So how are you going to get your people to think differently about the situation? Should you:

  • Give them a spreadsheet showing the various maximum output levels at different levels of shift coverage?
  • Put that same information in a chart?
  • Or butter them up, praising their commitment to the company and their work ethic, and then try to convince them?


The answer: The chart.

A revealing experiment
Researchers at Dartmouth University did an experiment along these lines, although they intentionally tackled an even tougher challenge: Getting people to accept facts that contradict their political beliefs. They set out to convince a group of die-hard liberals that President George W. Bush’s “surge” strategy in Iraq succeeded in reducing violent attacks. And they tried to convince conservative voters that the economy improved in President Obama’s first year in office.

As you might expect, they got a lot of pushback from both groups, facts on the ground notwithstanding.

So why did a chart prove to be the most effective way to get people to reconsider?

Want more ideas on how to make smarter business decisions and be more persuasive on the job, take a free look at the 9-minute training video, Fact-Based Decision-Making: The Five Whys Technique

Seeing is believing
Neuroscience suggests that it’s because visuals are the brain’s native language. Far more of the brain’s processing power is devoted to visual input than to language. We learn visual information more quickly and retain it longer. What’s more, the researchers concluded, we’re more likely to perceive visual information as “true.”

Verbal and written data, by contrast, is more likely to be perceived as, literally, debatable. They’re processed by part of the brain that governs the give and take of a conversation or argument, so the brain starts crafting a counterargument in response: Yes, violence might have gone down in some areas, but probably went up in others. Or yes, the economy grew, but what about profits or wages?

When you see a chart, by contrast, those types of arguments tend not to surface. Seeing is believing, as they say.

So next time you need to imprint some inconvenient, unwelcome or even unexpected facts in the heads of the folks you manage, don’t risk a verbal tug of war by trying to talk it through. And don’t try to overwhelm people with data sheets.

Instead, use graphics to make your point(s). You may find you get a lot less pushback and a lot more agreement.

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