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The language of leadership is misunderstood, underutilized
and more essential than ever.
T ECESSARY ART OF
BY ]AY A. CONGER
THERE EVER WAS A TIME for businesspeople to learn the fine art
of persuasion^ it is now. Gone are the command-and-control days of
executives managing hy decree. Today husinesses are run largely hy
eross-functional teams of peers and populated hy hahy hoomers and
their Generation X offspring, who show little tolerance for unques-
tioned authority. Electronic cominunication and glohalization have
further eroded the traditional hierarchy, as ideas and people flow more
freely than ever around organizations and as decisions get made closer
to the markets. These fundamental changes, more than a decade in
the making hut now firmly part of the economic landscape, essentially
come down to this: work today gets done in an environment where
THE NECESSARY ART OF PERSUASION
TWELVE YEARS OF WATCHING AND LISTENING
The ideas behind this article spring from three streams
For the last 12 years as both an academic and as a
consultant, I have been studying 23 senior business
leaders who have shown themselves to be effective
change agents. Specifically, I have investigated how
these individuals use language to motivate their em-
ployees, articulate vision and strategy, and mobilize
their organizations to adapt to challenging business
Four years ago, I started a second stream of research
exploring the capabilities and characteristics of suc-
cessful cross-functional team leaders. The core of my
database comprised interviews with and observations
of 18 individuals working in a range of U.S. and Cana-
dian companies. These were not senior leaders as in
my earlier studies but low- and middle-level man-
agers. Along with interviewing the colleagues of these
people, I also compared their skills with those of other
team leaders-in particular, with the leaders of less
successful cross-functional teams engaged in similar
initiatives within the same companies. Again, my fo-
cus was on language, but I also studied the influence of
The similarities in the persuasion skills possessed
by both the change-agent leaders and effective team
leaders prompted me to explore the academic litera-
ture on persuasion and rhetoric, as well as on the art of
gospel preaching. Meanwhile, to learn how most man-
agers approach the persuasion process, I observed sev-
eral dozen managers in company meetings, and I em-
ployed simulations in company executive-education
programs where groups of managers had to persuade
one another on hypothetical business objectives.
Finally, I selected a group of 14 managers known for
their outstanding abilities in constructive persuasion.
The Science of Why We Donâ€™t Believe Science
How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.
Illustration: Jonathon Rosen
Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.
â€œA MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.â€ So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist
Leon Festinger (PDF), in a passage that might have been referring to climate change denialâ€”the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes. But it was too early for thatâ€”this was the 1950sâ€”and Festinger was actually describing a
famous case study in psychology.
Festinger and several of his colleagues had infiltrated the Seekers, a small Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliensâ€”including one, â€œSananda,â€ who they believed was the astral incarnation of Jesus Christ. The group was led by Dorothy Martin, a Dianetics devotee who transcribed the interstellar messages through automatic writing.
Through her, the aliens had given the precise date of an Earth-rending cataclysm: December 21, 1954. Some of Martinâ€™s followers quit their jobs and sold their property, expecting to be rescued by a flying saucer when the continent split asunder and a new sea swallowed much of the United States. The disciples even went so far as to remove brassieres and rip zippers out of their trousersâ€”the metal, they believed, would pose a danger on the spacecraft.
Festinger and his team were with the cult when the prophecy failed. First, the â€œboys upstairsâ€ (as the aliens were sometimes called) did not show up and rescue the Seekers. Then December 21 arrived without incident. It was the moment Festinger had been waiting for: How would people so emotionally invested in a belief system react, now that it had been soundly refuted?
Copyright 2002 Harvard Business Publishing. All Rights Reserved. Additional restrictions
may apply including the use of this content as assigned course material. Please consult your
institution’s librarian about any restrictions that might apply under the license with your
institution. For more information and teaching resources from Harvard Business Publishing
including Harvard Business School Cases, eLearning products, and business simulations
please visit hbsp.harvard.edu.
Leaders can make change
happen only if they have
a coherent strategy for
turnaround at a world-
hospital shows how to
plan a change campaign-
and carry it out.
by David A. Garvin and
Michael A. Roberto
“”ACED WITH THE NEED for massive change, most
^ managers respond predictably. They revamp the
â€¢ organization’s strategy, then round up the usual set
of suspects-people, pay, and processes-shifting around
staff, realigning incentives, and rooting out inefficien-
cies. They then wait patiently for performance to im-
prove, only to be bitterly disappointed. For some rea-
son, the right things still don’t happen.
Why is change so hard? First of all, most people are
reluctant to alter their habits. What worked in the past is
good enough; in the absence ofa dire threat, employees
will keep doing what they’ve always done. And when an
HARVARD BUSINF<;(; RFVIFW
Change Through Persuasion
organization has had a succession of leaders, resistance to
change is even stronger. A legacy of disappointment and
distrust creates an environment in which employees au-
tomatically condemn the next turnaround champion to
failure, assuming that he or she is “just like all the others.”
Calls for sacrifice and self-discipline are met with cyni-
cism, skepticism, and knee-jerk resistance.
Our research into organizational transformation has
involved settings as diverse as multinational corporations,
government agencies, nonprofits, and high-performing
teams like mountaineering expeditions and firefighting
crews. We’ve found that for change to stick, leaders must
design and run an effective persuasion campaign-one
that hegins weeks or months hefore the actual turnaround
plan is set in concrete. Managers must perform significant
work up front to ensure that employees will actually lis-
ten to tough messages, question old assumptions, and
consider new ways of working. This means taking a series
vince employees that theirs is the correct plan for mov-
Accomplishing all this calls for a four-part communica-
tions strategy. Prior to announcing a policy or issuing a set
of instmctions, leaders need to set the stage for accep-
tance. At the time of delivery, they must create the frame
through which information and messages are interpreted.
As time passes, they must manage the mood so that em-
ployees’ emotional states support implementation and
follow-through. And at critical intervals, they must pro-
vide reinforcement to ensure that the desired changes
take hold without backsliding.
In the pages that follow, we describe this process in
more detail, drawing on the example of the turnaround of
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BiDMC) in Boston.
Paul Levy, who
Copyright Â© 1999. All rights reserved.
Copyright Â© 1999. All rights reserved.
Copyright Â© 1999. All rights reserved.
Copyright Â© 1999. All rights reserved.
Copyright Â© 1999. All rights reserved.
An idea is just the first step. Then youâ€™ve got to
Whether itâ€™s a new vision for collaborating
with the marketing team or a better way to
work with suppliers, your ideaâ€™s value is determined by
your ability to get others to buy into it and execute it.
The biggest obstacle to persuasion? Focusing too much
on what you see as the ideaâ€™s value, says Mario Moussa,
codirector of the Wharton Schoolâ€™s Strategic Persuasion
Workshop and coauthor, with G. Richard Shell, of The
Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas
(Portfolio, 2007). â€œWhatâ€™s convincing to you is not
necessarily convincing to others,â€ he says.
From their work helping executives and managers
handle complex negotiations and gain buy-in on change,
Moussa and Shell have developed a strategic approach to
persuasion. Its four steps are:
1. Targeting the right person.
2. Removing the barriers to being heard.
3. Making your pitch.
4. Securing commitments.
This article will focus on steps 2 and 3: removing
barriers and making your pitch.
Turn PoTenTiAl BArrierS inTo BridgeS
Effective persuasion is not about aiming a firehose of
data and arguments and testimonials at someone. The
more you push, the more likely it is that the other person
will push back. If you have power over that person, he
probably wonâ€™t come right out and say he doesnâ€™t buy into
your plan. His disagreement will be tacit, his resistance
covert. But the impact on execution will be plain as day.
Instead, think of persuasion as making it easy and
obvious for the other person to agree with you.
These five barriers can come between you and the person
whose yes you seek: (1) credibility, (2) relationships, (3)
beliefs or values, (4) interests, (5) communication.
But each one of these barriers can also serve as a
bridge, helping you connect with the other person and
move them to your side.
It all begins with credibility. If the people you are trying
to persuade donâ€™t find you credible, youâ€™ve got little
chance of persuading them. Credibility isnâ€™t about you
and your credentials; itâ€™s about how other people think
about you and your credentials. Establishing credibility
means demonstrating that you possess competence and
expertise, and that youâ€™re trustworthy. Donâ€™t wait until
you have an idea to sell; everything you say and do should
build credibility for the day youâ€™ll need it to sell an idea.
When people know you, like you, and trust that youâ€™ll
reciprocate any favors they do for you, they are much
more likely to listen to your ideas and to go along with
them. Conversely, when they donâ€™t know you, they have
little reason to trust you or your ideas.
â€œin the end, people persuade themselves.
so donâ€™t push your idea on others; instead,
The subtle art of making
people feel special
SOPHIE GAMANDRoger L. Martin
Former dean, Rotman School of Management
Harvard Business Review
Marchâ€“April 2022 â€‰127
IDEA IN BRIEF
Unique talent can have
a huge impact on the
quality of the work an
organization produces. So
itâ€™s crucial to keep your
star performers happy.
Many bosses assume
that compensation is
the solution. But money
on its own has seldom
retained really first-class
talent. Star performers
also need to feel special,
which means you canâ€™t
treat them as if theyâ€™re
simply a well-paid cog in
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD
A boss should show
stars appreciation in
three ways: by listening
to their ideas, never
blocking their growth and
development, and taking
every opportunity to
128 Harvard Business Review
Individuals with unique talent can profoundly affect the
valueâ€”and even the natureâ€”of the work their organizations
produce. A film studio can make a movie with or without
Julia Roberts, but it wonâ€™t be the same movie. The Green Bay
Packers can play football without quarterback Aaron Rodg-
ersâ€”but they will have to run a different offense. If a pharma-
ceutical company loses its star scientist, it will have to change
its research program. If a hedge fund loses its investment
guru, it will need to alter its approach to investing.
As the knowledge economy has taken over the business
world, people with rare expertise and skills have become
powerfulâ€”be they corporate executives, research scientists,
money managers, artists, athletes, or celebrities. At the same
time, technology and innovation have modernized the cap-
ital markets, making funding much easier to get and further
shifting power from capital to talent. And while the earnings
of talent in many domains have skyrocketed over the past
four decades, nothing has matched topflight managersâ€™
ability to extract value: Steve Ballmer made the vast majority
of his $96 billion fortune by being Bill Gatesâ€™s first business
manager. Eric Schmidtâ€™s $24 billion net worth came from
taking the reins of Google for a decade, and Meg Whitmanâ€™s
$5 billion from serving as eBayâ€™s CEO for 10 years.
Such eye-popping numbers have given rise to the belief
that star performers are deeply motivated by compensation
and that big monetary rewards are key to their recruitment
and retention. There is a grain of truth to that. Iâ€™ve met plenty
of CEOs who pump up the perceived value of their companies
to inflate their stock-based compensation; activist hedge-
fund managers who destroy companies for short-term ga
O U H AV E A
great ideaâ€”a product tweak that will
save your company money, a process
change to increase your teamâ€™s produc-
tivity, or a plan for heading off a looming
crisis. Thereâ€™s just one snag: Youâ€™re not
sure how to approach your boss about it,
or worse, youâ€™ve tried and failed to get
the attention of higher-ups.
Despite abundant research on the
value of bottom-up innovation and
problem-solving, many workers still feel
stifled in giving their bosses feedback or
making suggestions. One survey of U.S.
employees found that a full 70% werenâ€™t
comfortable raising an issue with their
boss even when it was important,
and a landmark 2003 study found that
85% of employees withheld their ideas
because they were afraid to speak up.
Additional research shows that
even when employees do speak up,
Illustrations by JUSTYNA STASIK
How to Sell Your Ideas up
the Chain of Command
Start by understanding your manager.
by Ethan Burris
Harvard Business Review
Januaryâ€“February 2022 â€‰139
their suggestions usually donâ€™t lead
to change. For example, an Accenture
study showed that nearly three-fourths
of ideas submitted through corporate
online suggestion tools languished and
were never implemented. Another study
of a hospital found that of 200 ideas
shared by employees, most were initially
rejected and fewer than a quarter were
For the past two decades, Iâ€™ve studied
how employees offer solicited and
unsolicited recommendations and how
managers respond. Obviously, there are
many reasons why ideasâ€”including
those from senior leadersâ€”fail to make
it to implementation. But too often good
ideas are ignored or rejected. Iâ€™ve found
that two factors are key to a successful
pitch: having the confidence to make
your suggestion and knowing how to
frame it to get the best reception from
your boss. Some managers will be more
unapproachable and unresponsive
than others, but research shows that
the majority are more open to ideas and
suggestions than you might imagineâ€”
provided they are approached effectively.
In the studies my colleagues and
I have conducted across health care,
restaurant, oil and gas, technology,
and financial service organizations,
weâ€™ve uncovered several strategies that
you can use to make yourself heard
by managers, thereby enhancing both
your companyâ€™s performance and your
own experience at work. Weâ€™ve found
that the key to selling your idea up the
chain of command is to understand the
psychology of higher-upsâ€”to get inside
their heads. Doing so can help you
recognize what tips the scales in your
favorâ€”and identify the (rare) instances
when itâ€™s best to try to go around or
ARTWORK Artist Name, Artwork Name, year
Description of materials, size
Name of show if available, location
ARTWORK Rune Guneriussen, One Can Rely on the Prudence
of His Decisions #04, 2008, c-print/aluminum, 84 x 124 cmSpotlight
84 Harvard Business Review Julyâ€“August 2010
SPOTLIGHT ON THE EFFECTIVE ORGANIZATION
1252 JulAug10 Pfeffer.indd 841252 JulAug10 Pfeffer.indd 84 6/8/10 1:39:42 PM6/8/10 1:39:42 PM
Jeff rey Pfeff er (pfeff er_
jeff [emailÂ protected])
is the Thomas D. Dee II
Professor of Organizational
Behavior at Stanford Univer-
sityâ€™s Graduate School of
Business in California. His
latest book, Power: Why
Some People Have Itâ€”And
Others Donâ€™t, is forthcoming
Acquiring real cloutâ€”the kind that helps
you get stuff doneâ€”requires bare-knuckle
strategies. by Jeff rey Pfeff er
WHEN LAURA ESSERMAN, MD, MBA, became the di-
rector of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at
the University of California at San Francisco, in 1997,
she had big plansâ€”for both the center and medicine
more generally. She hoped to boost the institutionâ€™s
prominence and patient throughput by delivering in-
tegrated care in one attractive setting. Women would
not have to go from place to place for the various
diagnostic procedures and treatments they needed,
enduring anxious, multiday delays as they waited
for test results. A woman could arrive in the morn-
ing with a suspicious lump and leave at the end of
the day with a treatment plan. To accelerate overall
progress in treating breast cancer, Esserman wanted
to increase the ease and speed of enrolling patients
in clinical trials and to build an informatics system
that would capture data about treatment outcomes
from many sites. All of this represented a sensible
strategy, and it has worked out well: The center now
sees many times more patients than when Esserman
took over; a new website has led to increased and
easier enrollment in clinical trials; and the Athena
project, which collects data from multiple UC medi-
cal centers, is under way.
None of this was easy to accomplish. For Laura
Esserman, as for all executives working in interde-
pendent systems full of strong-willed people with
their own agendas, having a plan was only the fi rst
step. Although she was the centerâ€™s director, she
had little say in many personnel decisions. Each of
the departments she wanted to bring together had
its own objectives and concerns. While she and her
team were thinking about patientsâ€™ outcomes and
service experiences, the CFO had to worry about the
budget and bond ratings. The facility was housed in
a state building, so even if Esserman raised private
WWHEN LAURA ESSERMAN,WHEN LAURA ES
Senior leaders can become
insulated from early signs of
danger and opportunity.
Hereâ€™s how to overcome that.
Managing director, Merryck & Co.
Former CEO and chairman, Amgen
80 Harvard Business Review
Harvard Business Review
Marchâ€“April 2021 â€‰81
His colleagues were confident, employed a command-and-
control style of leadership, and made their expectations
clear. Kevin adopted that style, which came naturally to
him and allowed him to rise rapidly on the career ladder.
He recalls, â€œMy approach was: â€˜Iâ€™m the smartest guy in the
room. Just let me prove that here, in the first five minutes.â€™
I would even interrupt people and tell them what they were
going to tell me, to save us time so that we could get to the
really important stuff, which was me telling them what to do.
And I got away with it. It worked.â€
Until it didnâ€™t.
In 2000 Kevin became Amgenâ€™s CEO. In that role he
assembled a new leadership team and set the company on
a trajectory of rising revenue and profits. Magazine cover
stories and other recognition followed, pushing him into
what, in hindsight, he calls the â€œego danger zone.â€ He was
less engaged and became intellectually lazy. The talk in
the company, a trusted lieutenant later informed him, was
that people should avoid meeting with the boss after 3 pm,
because his attention waned as the day wore on.
Then a crisis hit. Seven years into his tenure as CEO, a
red-blood-cell stimulant called Epogen, which accounted
for a third of Amgenâ€™s profits and was believed to be nearly
free of side effects, was flagged in studies suggesting that
at higher doses it caused a slightly greater risk of heart
problems for patients. The FDA ordered changes in how it
was prescribed, which sharply lowered sales. As profits fell,
Kevin had to order the first mass layoff in the companyâ€™s
history, cutting 14% of its staff.
At first he angrily blamed others for the debacle. â€œI was
completely in denial,â€ he recalls. â€œI had become impatient
and arrogant, and I assumed people were going to fix the
problem.â€ But one evening Kevin found himself sitting alone
in a restaurant in Santa Monica, waiting for his daughter and
her husband to join him for dinner. That rare moment of
quiet provided time for reflection and led to an epiphany.
He had mishandled the Epogen crisis, he realized, in large
part because he was a horrible listener.
Kevin resolved to do better from that day on. Instead of
thinking of eight things at once when he was meeting with
somebody, he would be pres ent. Instead of approaching
every conversation as a transactional exchange and cutting
people off and telling them what to do, he w
Get the Boss
to Buy In
ARTWORK Mauro Perucchetti, Notre Dame (detail), 2003
Acrylic and urethane jelly babies, 76″ x 76″SPOTLIGHT
72 â€‚Harvard Business Reviewâ€‚Januaryâ€“February 2015
SPOTLIGHT ON SOFT SKILLS YOU CANâ€™T NEGLECT
Learn to sell your
ideas up the chain
by Susan J. Ashford
and James Detert
N ENGINEERING MANAGER at an
energy companyâ€”weâ€™ll call
him John Healyâ€”wanted to
sell his boss on a safer and
cheaper gas-scrubbing tech-
nology. This might have been an easy task
if his boss, the general manager, hadnâ€™t se-
lected the existing system just a year before.
Instead it was, in Healyâ€™s words, â€œa delicate
process.â€ Fortunately, user reviews of the
new technology had become available only
in the past several months, which Healy tact-
fully mentioned in his presentation to the GM
and other senior executives. He also included
a detailed comparison of the two systems,
drawing on implementations at comparable
plants; the data suggested that the new sys-
tem would remove contaminants more effi-
ciently and reduce costs by about $700,000
a year. Because the GM was still on the fence,
Healy brought in a bio-gas expert his boss
trusted and respected to talk about the new
technologyâ€™s merits. The company made the
investment and adopted the new system.
Organizations donâ€™t prosper unless man-
agers in the middle ranks, like Healy, identify
and promote the need for change. People at
that level gather valuable intelligence from
direct contact with customers, suppliers, and
colleagues. Theyâ€™re in a position to see when
the market is ripe for a certain offering, for
instance, or to detect early signs that a part-
nership wonâ€™t work out. But for many reasons,
ranging from a fear of negative consequences
to compliance with a top-down culture, they
may not voice their ideas and concerns. As we
know from our research and othersâ€™ work in
this area, not to mention recent news stories,
such silence can have dire consequencesâ€”
like â€œregulatory captureâ€ in banking and un-
checked product safety risks.
Even when they do speak up, most man-
agers struggle to sell their ideas to people at
the top. They find it difficult to raise issues
to a â€œstrategicâ€ level early in the decision-
making processâ€”if they gain entry into such
conversations at all. Studies show that senior
executives dismiss good ideas from below
far too often, largely for this reason: If they
donâ€™t already perceive an ideaâ€™s relevance to
organizational performance, they donâ€™t deem
it important enough to merit their attention.
Middle managers have to work to alter that
Their task is easier if certain contextual fac-
tors are in placeâ€”for instance, a track record
Januaryâ€“February 2015â€‚Harvard Business Reviewâ€‚73
of strong in