Leadership & Influence

High Ground Maneuver: How To Persuade People Like Steve Jobs

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A high ground maneuver is an artful way to get yourself out of a sticky situation. Most people think that they should explain their way out of trouble. But that makes the situation worse. Learn the right way for a leader to put the kibosh on negative news and force people to move on.

Reporters at a press conference taking notes. In the foreground is a lady with a black dress and stockings with a writing pad on her lap.

When Do You Need A High Ground Maneuver

But first let’s see from some recent news how things go when you don’t execute a high ground maneuver. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, broke his silence yesterday and released a statement on the Cambridge Analytica data scandal that hit his company over the past weekend.

From a PR disaster standpoint his statement had all the right elements expected from leaders like him. Here’s what he got right:

Took personal accountability — didn’t blame it on someone else in the organization or third parties.

Explained how this happened to provide clarity to users.

Outlined the fixes that will prevent this from happening again.

No doubt he also got some important advice from his highly paid PR folks at Facebook — so he does get a solid B+ for a good response to the black eye his company got with this lousy news.

The Proper Use Of A High Ground Maneuver

However, if Zuckerberg really wanted to knock this out of the park he could have executed what Scott Adams (Dilbert creator) calls a high ground maneuver — like Steve Jobs did in 2010 for Apple.

A high ground maneuver is when you take a situation from the weeds of the discussion, make a generalized statement that is fully true — but also simultaneously takes the topic to a higher level — from which potential and current critics will look foolish if they continue to focus on the earlier details. For full impact it is also important to be brief and to the point.

A book about Steve jobs with his photo kept next to a silver iPhone 12 pro.

Here is how Jobs handled a critical issue for Apple phones some years ago:

“We’re not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy.”

-Steve Jobs

Following those lines, Zuckerberg’s high ground maneuver could have looked like this:

Third party apps are a thorn for all social media companies and user privacy. Today in Facebook, bad actors like Cambridge Analytica can’t do what they did in 2013. We let you down but will fix this and make it right soon.

The crisis that Facebook is dealing with is far more critical than Apple’s but the technique would still have made things more manageable for Zuckerberg. Given his statement today, it’s likely that most stories tomorrow will still be mostly about Facebook — their failure to protect users’ data and potentially allow election meddling.

If, on the other hand, he had used Jobs’ highly successful jujitsu persuasion move — many news stories would have been on other social media sites like Twitter and MySpace and their vulnerability to third part apps like Cambridge.

How To Perform A High Ground Maneuver At Work

For the rest of us, being able to perform a high ground maneuver is a killer skill to have at work and will set you apart instantly when you apply it for the right occasion. Many contentious issues in business situations tend to have people talking and arguing too much about the details. The problem with little things is that they all seem important when looked at individually. At a higher level, they produce deadlocks.

Elevate the discussion with a more general statement. Find a position that will force the remaining participants to stay at your higher ground — or else they will look weak if they continue to stay in the weeds of the problem. Their ego will prevent them from going back to the petty details. They will usually start to agree with your stand and move to your side on the issue.

What Mark Zuckerberg Did Right

Going back to Zuckerberg’s statement, did you notice that he did not say he was sorry in his statement on Facebook today. He may have implied it — but he did not say it. Steve Jobs did not do it either in 2010. For persuading people when something goes wrong, it is probably wise to avoid saying you are sorry all the time. Zuckerberg may take some heat for not explicitly saying sorry, but if he had — his initial statement would have been less persuasive.

Bonus persuasion tip for today: Don’t constantly say you are sorry at work. It ascribes fault and blame to you needlessly. Only do it if you genuinely (or literally) step on someone’s toes and cause significant pain and harm.

To learn more about the general topic of persuasion you can find a list of recommended books here.

Best books to improve your influencing and persuasion skills


Shaun Mendonsa, PhD is an influencing expert and pharmaceutical development leader. He writes on the topics of influence and persuasion, and develops next generation drugs in human pharma by advising international pharmaceutical CROs and CMOs. He can be reached at smendonsa@master-influencer.com.


Keywords

High Ground Maneuver; Public Relations; Leadership Development; Career Advice; Conflict Resolution; Mark Zuckerberg; Steve Jobs; Scott Adams; Opinion Change

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