Influence: It's About Math, Not Motivation

(Corrects comparison of money saved by the two groups in paragraph 11.)

Most leaders secretly wish for a magic wand, or some supernatural power that would allow them to do something mere mortals can't. While many leaders would like to conjure a few more points in market share or zap a competitor to a distant part of the galaxy, the best use of such newfound powers would be to solve problems of influence. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, with a simple wave of the hand, we could cause large groups of people to behave differently? That would be true magic.

Last year, I was speaking with a leader who was trying to make a financial pivot in response to weakening market conditions. He needed to get his 10,000 employees to move to a leaner cost structure—and he needed it fast. So he did what most leaders do: He wrote an e-mail. It was a great e-mail. It laid out the facts. It called for action: reduce $6 million per month in operating costs in 60 days. It was persuasive. It was clear. It even answered the essential WIIFM ("What's in it for me?") question by concluding with this statement: "Our first priority is to keep our team intact. Our only hope of avoiding layoffs is to find efficiencies through reducing waste and improving processes. Your engagement is essential!"

The e-mail went out to all employees. It was followed by a series of management meetings with senior executives that repeated the message and gave reduction targets to each division.

That e-mail was sent on Feb. 6. By July 4, the leader declared the influence strategy dead and imposed top-down head-count reductions. When I asked him what went wrong, he concluded: "No one wants to sacrifice for the common good so they wait for others to pony up first. It's all about self-interest."

What this leader didn't realize and what so many people don't actually know is that most of their influence problems are actually math problems. At all times, the employees, customers, suppliers, or partners you want to influence are subject to six distinct sources of influence. Whether you can see these sources or not, they are there. Whether you like it or not, they work for you or against you. That's where the math comes in. Most of our attempts to lead change draw on a single source of influence. That means the other five are working against you. When you don't get the new behavior you're seeking from employees, it is because you haven't marshaled a sufficient number of these sources of influence.

Are You Smarter Than a Sixth-Grader?

We illustrated this mathematical quandary recently in an experiment at our Change Anything Labs at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. One Saturday morning, we offered two dozen sixth-graders a chance to earn some easy money. Each of the kids completed four simple tasks over the course of 10 minutes (alphabetize a handful of candies, sort toys by color, etc.). They were paid $10 for each task they completed. Without breaking a sweat they could earn $40 to take home and make their dreams come true.

To ensure the subjects were personally motivated to hang on to their earnings, we asked them to think of something they would buy once they returned home. As you'd expect, all had a ready target for their wealth: toys, video games, dolls, and even some higher aspirations. One sweet girl said she was thrilled to have the cash to save for a Christmas present for her sister.

Next, we warned them that we'd place temptations in their paths. After each task was complete, they would be invited to buy something at the Change Anything General Store. We walked them over to a counter that was spread with low-budget candies and trinkets with outrageously high prices. For example, a bag of Skittles was priced at $6, a can of Silly String was priced at $10, etc. As the kids reviewed the offerings, most shook their head in amazement at the ridiculous markups.

So how much would you guess they saved? All $40? O.K., they're sixth-graders—so let's assume they would buy a candy or two. How about $35? Or $30?

In the end, the average kid left with $13 and a look of disappointment. One boy bought five cans of Silly String and left in debt to the Change Anything General Store. (Don't worry, his loan was forgiven when he left.)

We then put a second group of kids through the same process. Same tasks. Same pay. Same temptations. But this group walked away with 260 percent of the first group's meager savings.

You're Surrounded

So what accounts for the difference in behavior between the two groups? The first was doomed from the outset because we intentionally leveraged the six powerful sources of influence to encourage them to spend.

Personal Motivation

We let them taste one of their favorite candies before they began their work. In the second group, we did not give out samples.

Personal Ability

The first group received no training on how to track their savings and spending. The second group was given a thorough review on tracking techniques.

Social Motivation

The first group was surrounded by three accomplices who encouraged them to spend. In the second group, one of the confederates changed sides and encouraged them to save.

Social Ability

In the second group, one of the confederates provided critical information—reminding the subject how much cheaper purchases would be at another store.

Structural Motivation

In the first group, kids saw a scoreboard that showed who had purchased the most. In the second, the scoreboard ranked the biggest savers.

Structural Ability

In the first group, the kids' savings and spending were done through a "credit account." In the second, transactions were paid in cash. This meant that the second group experienced the loss of their cash immediately.

As you can see, these small, powerful, and seemingly invisible sources of influence were leveraged in completely different ways in the two conditions. And the results were profound. A 260 percent difference in saving rates!

Want More Influence?

This little experiment powerfully illustrates the reason most leaders fail in their attempts to influence change. They send out a memo to a tribe of busy employees expecting a little verbal persuasion will offset the six sources of influence these folks experience every day that drive their attention in an entirely different direction. It's a naive and hopeless pursuit.

And then when their efforts fall short, they blame the only thing they can see—their employees. "It's all about self-interest!" It's not about self-interest. It's about math.

Too few leaders have a full appreciation of the complex web of influences that drive individual's choices. That's why so many scholars and leaders talk about leading change as a 5-, 10- or 20-year challenge.

It's not about time. It's about math.

Leadership starts by recognizing that the problem is not some moral deficiency in our people. Their behavior is powerfully influenced by the many sources of influence that we fail to see—and therefore fail to address.

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