On Winning Hearts and Minds


A while back, a client asked me what it took to win the hearts and minds of the people in his corporation. This was no theoretical conversation. As a senior manager, he had seen declining morale reflected in internal surveys. While profits were up, the company was seen as an “also ran” in its industry, and had an uncaring, unfeeling image.

Without answering, I said “find something new to be responsible for, and bring closure to it by apologizing for it.”

When I said it, it actually surprised me a bit.

While it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for many years, it struck me that until he asked me, I would not have answered that way before, even to myself. The statement makes no sense, in the normal way of thinking.

Yet, it applied perfectly.

Between the employees and its senior managers there was significant distrust. There were promises made that were broken. Outright lies told. Projects were started with great fanfare and then dropped.

While this kind of things happens in companies all day long, when they happen in public they have a particularly corrosive effect on culture and morale. People refer to them over and over, as the upset that occurred lingers without being addressed or resolved.

The weakest managers try their best to “keep things positive.” They skip over bad news, and focus on the good. Their public utterances are all about how great things are, as they try to look good and make everyone around them feel better.

Unfortunately, relentless optimism only irritates the original upset and deepens mistrust.

The only effective response is to “find something new to be responsible for, and bring closure to it by apologizing for it.”

And here, I’m not talking about the fake, no-apology that politicians and CEO’s are so fond of: “We need to find better ways to get the word out about the good things that are happening in the country / company.” This involves nothing new.

The “something new” could even be a success that has been unacknowledged, but usually leaders have no problem with this kind of communication. It is the failures that are much harder to acknowledge, but these are the ones that employees are the most willing to hear, when they have been fed a steady diet of good news.

The funny thing is, winning hearts and minds involves little more than an ability to “find something new to be responsible for, and bring closure to it by apologizing for it.” It unfailingly gets the attention of even the most ardent critic. An honest good faith effort to make things right is supremely powerful, especially to those who want things to be right, and are even cynical that that will never happen.

Recently, South Africa underwent such a process on a massive scale, involving millions of people. Politicians, soldiers, policemen, “freedom fighters” — they all involved themselves in the process that brought an end to the psychic suffering of all the people of that country.

My sister, who lives in Johannesburg, reports that the mood in the country is one of deep optimism, and she recently moved back to live in South Africa after living for several years in Ghana.

This optimism is to be expected. After all, that’s what happens when anyone takes steps to regenerate a relationship, and this is what it takes to win hearts and minds.

It is ironic – winning hearts and minds has nothing to do with being tough, and everything to do with working to “find something new to be responsible for, and bring closure to it by apologizing for it.”