All Articles Leadership Inspiration Don’t assume everyone thinks like you

Don’t assume everyone thinks like you

Leaders who assume that those around them think like they do run the risk of missing their chance to positively influence others, writes Steve McKee.

5 min read



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My firm once worked with a brand whose franchise owners tended to be blue collar, hands-on, working-class types who relaxed after a long day by cracking open a beer and watching cable TV. They were salt-of-the-earth, caring people for whom I have a lot of respect to this day. But that doesn’t mean we always saw eye to eye. 


For example, we did a tremendous amount of research to pinpoint the brand’s most likely and profitable customers: upscale women who were more likely to uncork a bottle of wine and page through Cosmopolitan or Self in their leisure time than flip through the cable channels holding a brewski. Naturally, it made sense to place the brand’s ads in magazines of that type. When we rolled out the campaign at the company’s national convention, however, it was the most “rotten tomatoes” moment I have ever experienced. A total revolt. Why? They simply couldn’t imagine advertising anywhere but on the medium where they spent their free time — TV. 

While that was a particularly uncomfortable experience, it wasn’t the first time I had incurred that type of ire. Years earlier, I was meeting with a client who was a country music buff and demanded to know why we weren’t advertising his brand on country radio stations. The answer was that there were six or seven formats to which his target audience listened to more than country, which meant his company was getting a lot more for its money on other stations. That wasn’t good enough. In his mind, everybody listens to country radio. He insisted we change the buy.

The most common complaint I’ve heard about advertising, however, is regarding direct mail. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told direct mail doesn’t work by people who toss their “junk mail” into the trash without even giving it a glance. It’s true that a lot of us do just that, but not everyone. Not even most. Direct mail advertisers might be annoying, but they’re not stupid. If direct mail didn’t work, there would be no direct mail. 

When you assume, you lose

The simple point of those three examples is that every advertising medium works, depending upon the time, place, audience and circumstances specific to a given industry or brand. No two marketing plans are alike, because no two companies are alike. The goal is to find the optimal mix and message for the specific customers and prospects a specific company needs to reach. 

But there’s a broader point as well. Whether you’re trying to sell pizza, life insurance, an idea, or a new work-from-home policy to your staff, it’s easy to assume that if it makes sense to you, it will make sense to them. That’s fine if everyone you’re aiming to influence is just like you, but that’s rarely, if ever the case. Imagine how easy preaching would be if it was only ever to the choir.

This phenomenon shows up in almost every form of communication. Most successful podcasters, for example, have strong opinions about sports, politics, health or whatever it is on which they focus. They’re successful in part because they’re adept at articulating their positions to their listeners, and as a subscriber you may find yourself nodding your head and thinking, “Of course — why can’t everybody see this point?” Because not everybody thinks like you, that’s why. In fact, there’s probably another podcaster taking the opposite position on the same subject whose listeners are shaking their heads and wondering about your intelligence. That’s why podcasters (and cable news networks) always attract only niche audiences — because they’re appealing only to niche audiences. 

Mold consensus instead of assuming

Leaders beware. Sometimes a niche is all we need; most often it’s not. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once described a genuine leader as a molder of consensus.  Leaders are marked by their ability to influence others, not merely by how well they can fire up everybody who already agrees with them. 

Before we can influence anyone who believes differently than we do, we must first understand how and why they think the way they do. Understanding their beliefs doesn’t mean we have to legitimize them; in fact, getting inside their heads and starting from their vantage point is the best way to frame for them a different way of thinking. It’s not only respectful, it’s smart.

This is how pork became “the other white meat,” how the Truth campaign made kids think smoking was uncool, how both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama won the presidency, and how you and I will be effective at leading people on any issue of consequence. 

Over the years I’ve learned to make as few assumptions as possible when presenting a plan to a client, and to anticipate (and raise) any potential issues before they do. That goes for market analyses, creative concepts, marketing strategies, and research recommendations as well. Differing perspectives is not a bug of human nature, it’s a feature; if everyone thought the same way we’d never get anywhere. 

You can’t fully know where people are coming from until you engage with them, but it’s a good bet to presume they don’t share all your assumptions. And once in a while they may even be right.


Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. McKee is the author of  “When Growth Stalls” and  “Power Branding.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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