When Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, "How well he spoke," but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, "Let us march." — Adlai Stevenson

Leadership is about many things, but in a nitty-gritty, brass-tacks sense, it’s largely about human behavior change.

We’re all leaders, and whether we lead employees, colleagues, our own kids, or an entire organization, we must have effective strategies at our disposal if we’re going to create positive change.

We must also avoid strategies that seem effective but produce anemic results. To both ends, here’s a fundamental behavior change principle that’s applicable in any leadership context:

Unless the change you’re trying to make is very small, don’t rely on rational arguments. Instead, appeal to people’s emotions.

Let’s look at an example.

Case study: toddler change management

My two-year-old has discovered hitting.

She doesn’t do it often, but if it’s been a rough day and she’s overwhelmed, she may try to land a smack when Mommy or Daddy suggest it’s time for bed. (Fortunately, she’s comically slow and it’s usually easy to dodge her blows.) We obviously want to discourage such behavior, but it’s not always clear how to do so. My tendency is to respond with “Hey—we don’t hit!”

This phrase is generally met with a blank stare.

A better option, wishy-washy though it may seem, is to say “Ow, that hurts Daddy.” This response is likely to elicit an apology—feeling hurt is something she can understand at an emotional level. Now, if only I could remember to use this second phrase after being smacked in the face at the end of a long day by a pouting toddler.

Have data, but appeal to feelings

Emotional appeals are just as effective with adults as with children, and scholarly evidence of their usefulness can be found in the work of John Kotter, arguably the pre-eminent change management scholar of our time (his book The Heart of Change addresses emotional appeals directly).

The importance of emotional reasoning is a tough pill to swallow, especially for those of us who are highly analytical. Even as I type this, I hear my inner nerd crying out, “But . . . data!” Data’s crucial, of course. Any change effort should rest on careful analytical work, but rational appeals rarely change minds.

Instead, it’s worth thinking about how we can make an emotional appeal to those we’re leading.