If you can't even influence your dog (they can be hard to train, after all), and you're too intimidated by your employees to try (though they usually don't bite), you could use a little "Influencer Training," the change technique favored by consultancy VitalSmarts. Joseph Grenny, co-founder of VitalSmarts, and author of "Crucial Conversations" and "Crucial Confrontations," offered an executive briefing on the topic in Times Square in New York City last week.
"The most important capacity you possess is your capacity to influence behavior—yours and other peoples," said Grenny. Not only is it an essential possession of yours, but one that can really mess up your future when it's lacking. Those "up-and-comers" you met in the workplace over the years who never quite up-and-came? The problem just may have been influence-related. "It's the predictor of your success or failure" in everything from child rearing to boardroom negotiations, Grenny emphasized.
The first step to improving our ability to influence, he explained, is becoming self-aware about our own theory of influence, the "tricks" we tend to rely on when trying to persuade others to change their behavior. "I'd like you to learn what the assumptions of your influence theory are," he said. That means understanding why you're only skimming the surface when trying to effect change rather than making an impact at the level of behavioral habits. "Executives too often come up with above-the-waterline solutions" focused on altering solutions, process, and systems, rather than changing behavior, said Grenny.
Evidence of our failure to exert influence on our own behavior and that of others is abundant. Grenny offered the following statistics for our consideration:
- 85 percent of corporate change efforts fail.
- 19 out of 20 diet attempts fail.
- 2 out of 3 criminals are rearrested within three years of release.
Wondering about your theory of influence? Think about a recent (or current episode) in your life that depended on your ability to exert influence, and think about the approaches you took. "If you want to learn your theory of influence," he said, "look at the solutions you generate."
To illustrate what powerful influence looks like, Grenny offered case studies such as that of Mimi Silbert, owner of San Francisco's Delancy restaurant. Silbert only takes new employees into her workforce who have an average of 16 felony convictions. She says she's looking for "angry, greedy, racist, and violent" employees. It isn't that Silbert admires those qualities; she knows she can exert influence to change them. She's worked with more than 14,000 felony offenders over the years with about a 90 percent success rate. What's the secret of successful influencers such as Silbert?
One of them is familiarity with the social learning scholar Dr. Albert Bandura. Grenny says nearly all the influencers he met in his research were followers of Bandura. One of Bandura's hypotheses is learned behaviors—the idea that behaviors such as hand washing in hospitals (most hospitals, Grenny shared with us, only have a 40 percent compliance rate in staff hand washing) can be adopted via practice. As silly as it may sound, even basic skills such as hand washing need to be practiced, to get a behavioral memory encoded into the brain that then will become like a reflex.
In addition to the idea that behaviors can be modeled, and then learned by those they're modeled to, is the idea shared by influencers such as Silbert that behaviors can change when the decision to change is linked to a person's values. For instance, at a grocery store Grenny visited, a worker who was slacking off was persuaded to get back to work not through authoritarian means but by the store manager telling him the story of a toddler in the store who ran his hands through ketchup smeared on a counter top and then put his hands in his mouth. The worker was disturbed enough by the story to offer to do better without ever being ordered to do so.
Of course, good old-fashioned peer pressure also goes a long way. Those notes in hotel bathrooms about saving the planet by using bath towels more than once? The only ones that seem to work are those that point out how many other guests have made the choice to keep their towels for more than one night. Similarly, Grenny said influencers working on the hand washing deficiency in hospitals found doctors and staff would comply when their peers held them accountable. In corporations, the power of peer pressure can be brought to bear through the use of mentors who hold colleagues accountable in whatever behaviors company leadership expects.
The feedback you receive from mentors and colleagues that amounts to peer pressure is a reflection of how our environment impacts our behavior. Indeed, that environment can be as simple as what those surrounding us are doing.
Sadly, that environmental influence will soon be seen at Thanksgiving tables. Grenny said research shows if you eat with one other person, you eat 30 percent more. Five or more people equal an additional 70 percent of intake. Other environmental factors that impact eating behavior are plate size, buffet versus sit-down style, and whether the diner happens to be wearing a belt. The tightening and creaking (creaking!) of the belt amounts to a "physical feedback mechanism" that alerts the eater he's gone a little too far with his fork and knife.
For trainers, what we know about the feedback component of influence can be leveraged through the use of audience response systems. Grenny said one of the reasons facilitators are misled into thinking they've influenced their learners more than they have is they rely on the people directly in front of them for feedback, rather than taking the whole room into account. He said he uses audience response systems in his own presentations, and has found the technology aids understanding and application of the material.
Taken together, the sources of influence Grenny has uncovered through his research reveal that change doesn't have to be a frustrating process. The research provides a clear-cut path for getting there. Contrary to popular "wisdom," he said the change you've been waiting for is closer than you think—given the right methodology. Says Grenny: "Change does not have to be slow and incremental."