Accountants must learn to communicate warmth

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A survey from Australia about trust in the professions ranks accountants ahead of lawyers – but with a score of just 50% (see box). Why is this?

Accountants know that a low level of trust is bad for business. ‘Trust is a hard-edged economic driver,’ says Stephen Covey, author of The Speed of Trust. He argues that trust always affects two outcomes – speed and cost. When trust dwindles, speed (the time it takes to do business) also falls while costs rise. Likewise, when trust goes up, speed increases and costs fall.

Trust is also a strong predictor of whether a client will follow an adviser’s recommendations. Research from the medical profession shows that patients who trust their doctors are more likely to follow treatment plans. Accountants can rebuild trust by softening their approach to appear more accessible, consultative and empathetic. Research by Susan Fiske at Princeton University on warmth and competence found that 80% of the social judgments humans make about other people are based on the answers they get to the two questions they unconsciously ask when meeting someone for the first time. These questions are hardwired into our brains and evolved in Stone Age times, when it was vital to rapidly determine whether a stranger was a friend or foe. The first question is ‘do I like this person?’, which is an assessment of their warmth and trustworthiness. The second is ‘do I respect this person?’, which is a judgment of their effectiveness and competence, and how capable they are of carrying out their intentions.

Fiske asked adults in the US to appraise and compare professions for warmth and competence. They rated the professions that come across as caring – nurses, doctors and teachers – as both warm and competent. People who come across as warm are inspiring.

Accountants sit in a group with engineers and lawyers, who are viewed as cold and competent. Apparently, professionals who come across as cold are mistrusted, and viewed as self-serving and calculating. The lesson from Fiske’s research is that if accountants want to become a high-trust profession, they need to become more skilful at generating and communicating warmth.

Empathy and self-persuasion

There are two practical, proven and easy steps that accountants can take to improve their warmth and trust scores. First, they need to become much more skilful at generating and projecting empathic concern – the emotional intelligence quotient referred to in ACCA’s research Professional accountants – the future and follow-up report Emotional quotient in a digital age – Emotions and the future of accountancy.

Empathy has three complementary components:

  • emotional, where we share the feelings of other people
  • cognitive, where we demonstrate that we understand a client’s goals, desires and motives, and can see the world through their eyes
  • concern, the attribute most highly valued by clients, where they believe their accountant genuinely cares about their long-term wellbeing and always acts with their interests in mind – a trusted helper, in other words. Clients reward trusted helpers by following their recommendations and, over time, buying more services from them.

Second, accountants need to change the way they influence others. There are two ways to influence someone: direct persuasion, which generates mistrust; and self-persuasion, which creates trust.

When influencers use direct persuasion, they use arguments, numbers and reasons to convince people why they need to change. Direct persuasion is the default form of influence for many accountants, whose persuasive communications primarily consist of statements packaged as presentations, status reports and managed discussions.

When influencers use self-persuasion, they help people discover their own reasons for following a course of action. Accountants who have been trained to use self-persuasion techniques consciously seek to minimise the number of statements they deploy. Their primary form of influencing behaviour is to ask questions. They use tools such as the ‘why, what if, how might we…’ questioning sequence to get clients to generate their own insights.

When accountants become expert at self-persuasion, they marvel at how motivated clients can be when they come up with their own reasons. They discover it’s not what you sell but how you sell it that matters most to clients.

Research by social psychologists shows that self-persuasion is nearly always more powerful than direct persuasion because we don’t argue with our own reasons. We trust the person who has come up with the reasons – ourselves. Self-persuasion doesn’t just change minds; it changes behaviour.

The bottom-line benefits for professionals who master how to build fast trust with empathetic concern and self-persuasion can be substantial. Perhaps the greatest benefit is discovering that, as trust deepens, the quality of the work you win improves. Great clients and challenging, cutting-edge work – what more can you ask for?

Trust ratings

Nurses: 94%
Doctors: 89%
Accountants: 50%
Lawyers: 35%
Bank managers: 35%
Financial planners: 25%

Harry Mills is the expert on persuasion for the Harvard ManageMentor programme.

This article was first published in the January 2019 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

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