Mathukutty Monippally – The man who didn’t have to try too hard

IIMA Professor of Communications on the greatest persuader in the world…

If I want to learn the art of persuasion at its finest, whose feet shall I sit at?

Bernard Madoff’s.  Without a doubt.

Hey, isn’t he the biggest swindler of all times? Isn’t he the guy who is now in prison with a 150-year term for running a $50 billion ponzi scheme among the well-heeled in the US for more than a decade? Isn’t he the one who grew fat on money sucked from his own Jewish community?

Yes, yes, yes.

Did you make a mistake, then?

Certainly not. I do mean Bernard Madoff. He should be your guru.

Are you out of your mind?

Certainly not. Let me explain why.

Swindling is the finest form of persuasion.  When we bang our heads against brick walls unable to deal with people who mulishly resist the most sensible of our ideas, swindlers make persuasion look like sliding down a greased pole.  What is their secret? There must be something that they do right even if their goals are wrong and you will never want to be in their shoes.

Let’s check out Bernard Madoff.  He was a well known philanthropist who supported hospitals, theatres, and charities.  He was an inspiring role model – successful businessman and generous donor bundled into one– in his community. After all he started out as a lifeguard and an installer of sprinklers, and rose to be the chairman of Nasdaq. No mean achievement, that. He made a lot of money for himself, for his extended family, and for all who invested with him. Money deposited with him was so safe that people used to call him the Jewish Treasury bill.

Madoff was never aggressive. He never made tall promises. He paid his clients 12-13% return on their investments consistently, year after year. It was high but not incredibly high; his consistency was well above what is feasible for even smart money managers. That is what made Madoff so sought after. In spite of such a brilliant track record, he appeared to be uninterested in money. From time to time he would say no to those who wanted to invest with him and get the benefit of his golden touch. Those who were spurned went to elaborate lengths, such as becoming members of the clubs he had joined, to somehow get into his privileged circle. Here was a man who didn’t have to try hard.

How could he persuade some of the shrewdest Jewish and non-Jewish minds including managers of some big hedge funds to part with their money for years at a stretch?

Madoff’s secret

Madoff correctly figured out that the biggest obstacle to persuasion is a thinking mind. If it is alert, it will see through traps and avoid them. Successful deception lulls the mind with an impeccable, natural-looking setup and lets the subrational instincts rule. He achieved it with a deadly combination of two things. First a stainless reputation for financial acumen coupled with integrity and philanthropy. It disarmed even savvy investors. There was nothing in his behavior that aroused even a whiff of suspicion. Second, selling that is subdued to the point where money was treated with apparent disdain. If he accepted your money, you considered it a favour. It is as if you were trying to persuade him, not the other way around. This is the kind of framing that any persuader will die for.

Aggressive selling and tall promises do work, but not with smart folks. Reasoning works, but only with the converted. What really paves the way for smooth persuasion is your behavior that elicits respect and admiration. Ethos, to use Aristotle’s terminology. Yet, instead of investing in it, corporate managers foolishly brandish logic when they want to persuade their bosses, subordinates, and colleagues. They invest heavily in garnering and displaying evidence. They blind themselves with the brilliance of their own arguments. They wake up their targets’ minds and challenge them to a fight. They are as spectacular and as likely to succeed as Americans in Afghanistan.

Great persuaders rely on getting their targets to persuade themselves.  That virtually eliminates the resistance that we all dread when we try to persuade others. Self persuasion by our targets happens only when we figure out what button to push below the radar of reason once they accept us. The button could be greed, lust, envy, fear, anger, love, pride, sympathy, and so on. What is amazing is that the same story has been repeating itself over and over again century after century. The characters change. Some goals are honorable, others despicable. That is all.

Madoff used broadly the same techniques in the twenty-first century as Prince Tungabala of Hitopadesa did more than a thousand years ago. Read his fascinating story here. The Prince’s victim – Charu Datta, a rich merchant’s son – was convinced that he had a stroke of good luck when, in fact, he was being quietly persuaded to offer his beautiful bride on a platter to the lecherous Prince. Greed had stopped Charu Datta from detecting the trap he was gleefully walking into.

The lesson for us is simple. Invest in your reputation – your credibility, your integrity, your expertise, and your fair-mindedness – far more than logic and evidence.  Most of your targets will do what you want them to because of who you are rather than what you say. But avoid deception because as Abraham Lincoln said, “you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

M. M. Monippally is Professor of communications at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. He has written The Persuasive Manager, published recently by Random House India and priced at Rs. 299 [visit http://www.iimabooks.com/]. His blog, http://persuasivemanager.blogspot.com , explores different aspects of managing by persuasion.

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