How to make change that sticks

Whether you call it persuasion, manipulation, development or influencing, a good people manager – in fact, anyone who works with people to get things done – needs to be able to change others’ behaviour, even if only temporarily.

Demanding change rarely works. If it appears so, it’s done begrudgingly and inevitably will not last. That is the stick, forcing change with threats.

What is far more effective is the carrot, enticing change with the promise of reward. But carrots are quite obvious and people are wily, knowing how to negotiate and ask for more (and more).

Recently, these behavioural interventions have been made media-friendly with the name ‘nudging’, but going back as far simple carrots and sticks, any behavioural change hinges on making what you want appealing enough to induce a change in behaviour.

Nudging is complex. Or Nudge Theory is it seems, on Wikipedia:

“Nudge is a concept in behavioural science, political theory and behavioural economics which proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behaviour and decision making of groups or individuals.”

But, it’s not really. You probably do it already, but you just don’t realise it. Or see it as the hidden superpower it can be.

“That’s great, that summary is so insightful” is positive reinforcement, feedback, acknowledging good work. Seems a basic behaviour to some of us, but to those who don’t receive it, it can feel like you’re sprinkling fairy dust. Not everyone is naturally enthusiastic or outgoing, but even a simple thank you can work wonders if it’s a phrase you don’t often hear.

As for indirect suggestion, well that’s not difficult either: “I wonder if there’d be merit in pursuing a different angle here?” or “You’ve done great work there, that project has got real potential to develop.”

Like dangling a carrot, indirect suggestion can take many forms because it relies on some undeniable truths of human behaviour: 

  • Peer pressure and the desire to conform to the group norm
  • Unintentional laziness, which you can harness by changing default settings on ideas and practices like having to opt out rather than opt in
  • Potential loss over saving. Research shows that people aren’t as motivated to save money as they are to avoid losing it
  • Short-term awareness, connecting the carrot with a recent event (though this fades as time passes and needs to be refreshed, much like fashion) 
  • Playing the numbers to push bias – 5% fat content won’t sell as well as 95% fat free
  • Over-confidence/selective belief, which keeps us buying lottery tickets though we statistically have a miniscule chance of winning

Some clients are disturbed by the concept of manipulating the behaviour of others, but they relax when I explain that I always use such ‘power’ to do good.

Even given those truths listed above, people are far more likely to change their mind and/or behaviour if they think it was their idea. That’s where, for people managers, the power sits.

Indirect suggestion is a fundamental tool in coaching, an approach all good people managers should be able to use. Asking questions to direct thinking, pushing for self-realisation all get better results than just telling someone the answer.

If you’d like to be a better people manager and develop your powers for good, why not get in touch and see how to polish up or develop your career-enhancing skills.

LinkedIn Louise Newton
Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

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