"That's it. If they're going to act like children, I'll treat them like children."
I was sitting in the office of the CEO of a financial services company when he said this. He had asked his senior executive team to cooperatively develop a capital spending plan for the coming year. He had challenged his team to take off their functional hats and propose a plan that put the enterprise's interests above their local needs. But the budget proposal he got back called for 150% of available capital and was loaded with low-value investments more suited to building fiefs than to creating shareholder value.
The CEO's face flushed as he summarized his theory of behavior: "These guys just flat out don't care about anyone's interest but their own."
This lament was caused by the CEO's lack of influence over the behavior of his executive team. His hope was that a logical and sincere plea for change would evoke profoundly different behavior than the team had exhibited in previous years. Obviously, he was wrong. But the kind of hope and subsequent disappointment he felt is extremely common. Over the past 25 years, my colleagues and I have repeatedly heard similar laments and conclusions—and not just from businesspeople.
The "Fundamental Attribution Error"
Almost all of the chronic problems we face in business, in our personal lives, and in our communities are this same kind of problem. They are problems of influence. They are issues that will never improve until we become more effective at influencing behavior—our own and others'. And yet, in spite of the need for greater influence over persistently problematic human habits, when it comes to our most crucial behavioral challenges, few of us are competent to address them.
One of the most important reasons we lack competence is illustrated in this CEO's ultimate conclusion. Our study of influence has shown us that you can't influence behavior you don't understand. The quality of our "theory of behavior" determines the quantity of our influence. This CEO's theory was that the bad behavior he needed to change in his executive team was simply selfish interests, and his influence strategy was to "treat them like children." Like a parent sending a kid to bed early, he'd remove their authority in the budget process and take control.
One of the primary reasons for our influence failures is our naiveté about why we and others are locked in bad behavior. Most often, we commit the Fundamental Attribution Error. We decide people do what they do because they're evil (personal motivation problems), stupid (personal ability problems), or both.
Nonsense. The real drain on our influence is not simply people's bad attitudes or lack of skills (although these can play a part); it's our ignorance of the complex causes of human behavior.
We live in a quick-fix world where leaders look for silver bullets to solve complex problems. We want a single influence trick to stop chronic bad behavior and replace it with behavior that improves quality or causes customers to gush with appreciation. Unfortunately, quick fixes don't work because bad behaviors rarely have a single cause; usually there is a conspiracy of causes.
When you don't develop an influence strategy as robust as the multiple sources of influence that cause today's bad behavior, you'll fail to generate real and lasting change tomorrow.
The Six Sources of Influence
Our research points to six unique sources of influence that account for both successes and failures. We've found that when people use four or more of these sources of influence in combination, they are 10 times more likely to produce profound, rapid, and sustainable change in behavior. Whether you're attempting to change a personal habit (like contributing more to your 401(k) (than to Gucci) or alter entrenched organizational habits (such as silo-oriented budgeting practices), attending to all of these sources of influence is key to your success.
So what do we have to do in order to gain a tenfold increase in our influence? We have to overdetermine change.
We need to turn all six sources of influence in favor of the desired behaviors in such a way that these actions become the path of least resistance.
But before you can make change inevitable, you have to discover why change seems impossible. You have to learn to recognize all the sources of influence that are aligned against your intended change.
For example, let's look more carefully at why seasoned executives would so predictably engage in petty politics during a high-stakes budget process. A careful study of their behavior reveals how each of the six sources of influence are involved.
1. Personal Motivation For 358 days of the year senior executives feel morally obligated to their functions—the people they work with and care about. It's no surprise that the moral inertia they bring to the seven-day conversation about enterprise budgets keeps them oriented toward the needs of those they are most deeply connected to.
2. Personal Ability These executives have been highly trained to think about investments in their area of functional expertise. They have little experience or education in the financial trade-offs and opportunities available in other areas.
3. Social Motivation Human beings crave approval. These executives experience more praise and pressure regarding achievements in their functional areas than for any lofty enterprise-level concerns. A few nudges from the CEO about transcending their silo are a paltry assault on the tsunami of social pressure they get from their functional employees and yes, even the CEO, for "hitting it out of the park" in their own area.
4. Social Ability The executive team did little to enable one another to question, challenge, or contribute to teammates' plans. They were slow to answer each others' questions and they spent little time together in creative development.
5. Structural Motivation Ninety percent of each executives' incentive pay is tied to functional goals. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
6. Structural Ability Our physical environment doesn't just motivate, it enables. To understand an executive's behavior, you need only look at what information and relationships are most enabled by his or her surroundings. These executives' offices were located with their functional teams. Ninety-nine percent of their time was spent with those in their divisions. If they did make contact with those from other departments, it was usually because they got off the elevator on the wrong floor. Likewise, the reports and meetings that dominated their mind-share focused them downward, not upward.
Notice how much more seriously we can begin to think about influence when we acknowledge the reality of all of the sources of influence aligned behind the status quo. And notice how silly it would be for a CEO to give a motivational speech at the beginning of an annual budget process and assume this meager source of influence would succeed in the face of an onslaught of contradictory sources.
Last week, during a scouting river trip, my son coaxed me into the canoe and challenged me to paddle upstream. After 15 minutes I was exhausted. I turned around to see we had made it less than 200 yards upstream. I lay my paddle across the gunwales and in seconds we were back where we started.
The first step to substantially increasing your influence is to stop paddling upstream. Until we get all six of these sources of influence flowing in the direction of change, we'll continue to not only fail, but even more damaging, pin the failure on moral deficiencies rather than mental proficiency—an insufficient understanding of human behavior.