One of the hardest things for any sales trainer is changing a learner’s negative attitudes.

Maybe reps aren’t engaging. Maybe they disparage the product, or talk trash about customers.

Attitudes like these are like cotton stuffed in their ears. Whatever you’re trying to teach is not going to get through. But tackling “bad attitudes” directly usually just makes people dig in their heels.

What’s a trainer to do?


Some interesting research shows why attitudes get so entrenched — and suggests a neat little sidestep that can past these defenses and open people’s minds.

We’re good at defending attitudes
There are two reasons attitudes are so hard to change: First, we tend to see challenges to our attitudes as attacks on our identity. And second, we have lots of experience defending them. (Anyone who’s raised teenagers knows what I’m talking about.)

A way around this impasse, paradoxically, is to go even deeper. Attitudes arise from beliefs and values, and a recent experiment found that engaging people about their beliefs and values is more effective than tackling their attitudes head on.

In the experiment, researchers chose a topic that people cared deeply about: affirmative action. They looked at people who were strongly in favor of affirmative action to see if they could get them to budge. (For the record, I don’t think the researchers were trying to undermine affirmative action itself, or were promoting any particular agenda. They chose this topic because people tended to have strong, well-entrenched attitudes about it.)

When researchers presented arguments against affirmative action, people pushed back hard. But when the researchers engaged in a discussion about the underlying value, the conversation took a different turn. People support affirmative action because they see it as a way to promote equality — that is, as a way to level the playing field and give disadvantaged people a fair shot at jobs.

So the researchers challenged the value (equality is good) instead of the attitude (I favor affirmative action): They asked subjects whether equality was always a good thing. For example, they questioned whether equality can have a detrimental effect on performance and creativity. Certainly not every baseball player is equally talented. And some ideas are better than others. So should they all be treated equally?

These arguments were more effective than a direct attack. They made people less confident in their support for affirmative action and more likely to view the policy unfavorably. In addition, subjects were less supportive of other equality-related social policies.

Once again, this study wasn’t about whether affirmative action is good or bad. It was about changing minds. Presumably, it would have worked the other way as well. People who oppose affirmative action often see it as a fairness issue. So the way to change their minds would be to challenge the idea that fairness is always a good thing.

What does it mean for trainers?
So how does this all relate to getting buy-in for training?

Well, when people have a “bad attitude” in training, their resistance reflects a deeper value or belief. For example, if you have learners who aren’t engaging, perhaps it’s because they believe training is a waste of time. So instead of trying to change their attitudes — for example, by insisting on more engagement or trying to sell them on the importance of the topic — engage them in a conversation about their beliefs and values. You might say, “So who here thinks training is a waste of time?” Then gently prod them on this belief: “Is training always a waste of time? When you started here, how did you figure out how to do your job? When you learned to drive, did you just get behind the wheel and figure it out yourself? So if you agree that some training is worthwhile, let’s talk about what makes training effective or ineffective.”

These conversations require a delicate touch, but handled properly, they can get even highly resistant learners to give training a fair shot. And we all agree that everyone deserves a fair shot, right?

Source: Blankenship et al. (2012). Circumventing resistance: using values to indirectly change attitudes. J Pers Soc Psychol 103(4):606-21.

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