The art of persuasion might be more important than you think. Here’s how to convince your boss, colleagues or employees to get on your side.

Flash back for a moment to one of those group projects from college or grad school.

Were you the one who ended up doing 90 percent of the work? Did you find your dislike for your group members increasing with every passing day? Did you swear to yourself that when you got into the “real” world, you’d never be part of a group project again?

How did that work out for you?

There’s an old business cliché about having lots of responsibility and no authority. It’s the worst of both worlds. But if you find yourself in a position where you’re the project or team leader, you may be in exactly that situation.

Once again you have to try to get “cross-functional” peers to coordinate with each other and care as much about your particular outcome as their own.

So, how do you get people to help you when they don’t want to?

If you’re faced with the inevitable task of getting a group to get something done, start by being aware of what doesn’t work:

1. Doing all or most of the work yourself

This approach usually fails. First, it’s impossible for you to do it all. Second, the rest of the team eventually starts to resent your takeover—they don’t want to do the work, but they definitely don’t want you controlling everything.

2. Trying to get the team to agree on who should do what

You could try to involve the whole team in deciding how to divide up all the work fairly, then collaborate and cooperate to get it done. But this is a recipe for disaster. That approach also fails much of the time. Democracy is a great political system. Not so great as a management system.

3. Tattling on the weakest links

Don’t run to your boss or the team sponsor to complain about all of the “do-nothings” you’ve been stuck with. Nobody likes a tattletale or a wuss, and it does absolutely nothing to solve the problem.

Okay, we‘ve covered what not to do.

So how do you get people to do things they don’t want to do?

1. Make friends before you make progress

You’ve probably heard the saying “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” The time to get to know people—genuinely—is before you need their help.

Smile, joke around, take an interest in others and let them talk about themselves. Nothing greases the wheel better than a little humor and a little genuine friendliness. And when you form alliances, you can bring more people on board to collectively advocate for your idea.

2. Extend the first favor

What goes around comes around. Do favors for people, then ask them to do favors for you in return. The sequence is critical here—don’t ask for favors unless you’re in the habit of doing them.

3. Ask, don’t tell

Don’t come into the first meeting with your agenda neatly written out, the project plan defined, deadlines set, milestones identified, and the font that will be used on the eventual project report chosen.

Instead, start with some questions: What are we trying to accomplish? What does success look like? What are some key questions we should think about before starting?

When you ask questions, people have to start thinking about answers. When they do, they start to “own” the answers—and voila!—you’ve got commitment. Bringing the group together to answer these questions builds mutual purpose and helps identify broad goals that everyone shares.

So, is that it?

Just follow those three steps and you’ll be a successful project leader?

Well, sort of. But add this part: Lather, rinse, repeat.

Getting people to do what they absolutely, positively don’t want to do is not a one-shot effort. You’ve got to keep at it.

But it’s better than doing all of the work yourself, right?

Sue Matson is a partner and no-nonsense executive coach with rd&partners headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Follow Sue and rd&partners on Twitter or read more articles like this on her blog.


  1. jrandom421

    Major league fail.
    If I really don’t want to do something, there isn’t anything that’s going to convince me to do it, no matter how good a friend you are, how many nice things you’ve done for me, or how nicely you ask, or how many times you ask.
    I’ll just simply say, ” Find someone else to do your dirty work. Or better yet, do it yourself and get out of my face”.

  2. Gwen Merle

    Well, after all it is still your employer that pays your living. So some motivation should be there beforehand.

  3. jrandom421

    Again, it doesn’t matter if it’s my employer or not. If I really don’t want to do something, I won’t, no matter what it is, who’s asking for it, or what the consequences are. If an employer asks me to do something I don’t want to ds, I’ll simply say no, and if they say I have to in order to keep my job, I’ll simply say, “This is my two weeks notice that I’m leaving the company”
    I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again, under the right circumstances. Some people just can’t persuaded, pushed or intimidated worth a darn, if they decide they don’t want to be. End of discussion.

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