Any successful company has to be able to influence people. Employees need to share a common vision to work together to promote the company’s mission. Customers need to develop routines to engage with the company’s products and services on a regular basis.
When you think about influence, you probably focus on the messages you send to others. Are you framing the company’s mission in the right way? Are you engaging with consumers in ways that promote the benefits of your company?
Ask yourself a key question:
When was the last time someone simply told you something that changed your behavior?
Chances are that there are very few (if any) instances in your own life in which your behavior was changed just by an idea, statement, or argument. You may hear something that is energizing, but really changing your behavior requires more than energy.
Think about your behavior. Each year around New Years (or perhaps a birthday or some other important date), you take stock of your life, and you may even resolve to make a chance in your behavior. Most people who make these resolutions sustain their new behavior of a few weeks, and then they return to their old habits, only to reconsider that resolution again the following year.
Just telling yourself to do something did not lead to lasting change.
Lasting change comes from a focused effort that engages your motivational system to replace an old and undesirable behavior with a new and desirable one. There are five sets of tools you can use in this effort.
Optimize Your Goals
Goals are the desired states of the world that you would like to bring about. In order to change your behavior, you have to make sure that you develop goals that can lead to success.
The most important part of setting your goals is to focus on positive goals. A positive goal is an action you can perform rather than an action you want to avoid. For example, if you are concerned about multitasking at work, you might want to set the goal to stop checking your email so often.
The problem with negative goals like this is that the system that learns habits cannot learn not to perform an action. It can only learn to do things. Consequently, it is crucial to focus on behaviors you perform. Instead of a negative goal like avoiding multitasking, it is better to focus on positive steps you can take like closing your email program when you have difficult work to do, or leaving your cell phone off when you are at a meeting.
Tame the Go System
The positive goals you develop then have to engage your motivational system. At the core of your motivational system is a set of brain mechanisms that give energy to your goals. These brain mechanisms, called the Go System, are very efficient at helping you achieve your goals. Engaging a goal with your Go System leads you to focus your attention on information in your environment that relates to achieving that goal. It also creates that nagging feeling (that we sometimes call a craving) when we are not currently working toward achieving that goal.
A big problem with engaging the Go System with new goals is that the goals that are most likely to be energized are those that are specific. A goal like “stop multitasking” is problematic, not just because it is negative, but also because it is too general. What actual actions can you perform that would lead to the outcome that you were not multitasking?
Instead of thinking only about general desirable outcomes, you need to create specific plans that will lead to the outcome you desire. That means creating a specific plan. This plan has to include particular actions as well as the times that you will perform those actions. You cannot say that you will shut off your email program for an hour each day, because that time is not specific enough. Instead, you need to decide which hour and then mark it on your agenda. Better still, choose a consistent time each day (say from 9:30-10:30am). This consistency is important, because the easiest way to learn a new habit is to create a consistent relationship between the environment and a desired behavior.
Harness the Stop System
Every once in a while your old habits resurface. In those moments, your Go System has been engaged by the behavior you were hoping to stop. The last defense you have once the Go System has been engaged by something you don’t want to do is another set of brain mechanisms that are designed to shut off behaviors that Go System Engaged. This brain mechanism is the Stop System.
Unfortunately, the Stop System is not nearly as efficient as the Go System. Anyone who has ever returned to an old behavior under stress has felt that failure of willpower. To maintain a new behavior, then, you need to plan for obstacles in advance.
A key to changing behavior is to think through all of the obstacles likely to derail your attempt to change behavior. Then, for any obstacles you are likely to encounter, have a plan ready to deal with them. That way, a part of your habit is to know what to do when you stare failure in the face.
Manage Your Environment
Perhaps the biggest driver of your behavior is the environment. It is hard to avoid checking your email frequently, because your email program is sitting right there on the desktop of your computer. Your smart phone is almost always within reach with a constant temptation to check it.
That means that you need to construct an environment that makes desirable behaviors easy and undesirable behaviors hard.
Engage with Others
The people around you also influence your behavior strongly. Humans are a social species, and we are wired to adopt the goals of the people around us. So, spend time around people who are engaged in the activities you want to perform and avoid those who are doing things you want to avoid.
In addition, there is a strong desire (particularly in the United States) to do things on your own. Many people are reluctant to ask for help when they need it, because they think that is a sign of weakness. But, most of what we learn about the world comes from the people we interact with. So, never be afraid to find a mentor who can help you to do things you find difficult.
The Core of Influence
All of these tools are required when you are trying to change your behavior. And they are also required when anyone else is trying to change theirs.
That means that if you are trying to influence someone else, you cannot just tell them something and hope that will affect what they do. Instead, you need to help them form a plan for how to engage the new behavior in their lives. You have to suggest positive goals for them. You need to encourage them to plan for temptation. You need to create environments that promote the behaviors you want. And you need to connect people with others who have the behaviors you want them to adopt.
Fundamentally, influence is not about persuasion. It is about behavior change.
Art Markman, PhD is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program: Human Dimensions of Organizations. HDO brings the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences to people in business. Art is cohost (along with Bob Duke) of the radio show Two Guys on Your Head on KUT in Austin. He is author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership. His most recent book is called Smart Change.
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