"Screw it. If they’re going to act like children, I’ll treat them like children.”
Imagine the following scenario. Weeks earlier, the CEO of a financial services company asked his senior executive team to cooperatively develop a capital budget for the coming year. He hoped this exercise would help them transcend the typical petty politics and rivalries.
In the end, the budget totaled 150 percent of available capital. They handed him back a Christmas tree loaded with every ornament every team member wanted—their version of cooperation was more like collusion. They had made none of the hard trade-off decisions the CEO expected. While sitting at his desk, draft budget in hand, his face flushed red. He summarized his theory of behavior: “They don’t care about anyone’s interests but their own.”
The CEO’s lament was his lack of influence. He attempted to influence the behavior of his executive team by expressing a single hope that a logical and sincere plea for change at the beginning of the budget process would evoke profoundly different behavior than the team exhibited in previous years. He was wrong. But he’s not alone in his frustration.
Almost all of the chronic problems we face in business, learning, our personal lives, and our communities are problems related to a lack of influence. Issues like those the CEO faced will never improve until we become more effective at influencing behavior. For example, how can we get 300 doctors in a hospital to consistently wash their hands? Or how can we help 4,000 software developers scattered across seven countries work interdependently on complex projects?
When it comes to our most crucial behavioral challenges, few of us are competent to address them. We are naive about the variety and power of various influences over human action. We overestimate the degree to which it’s simply an issue of attitude or will, and grossly underestimate the degree to which environment, incentives, social cues, and skills factor in.
The most important reason we lack influence is illustrated by the aforementioned CEO’s frustrated statement: “They just don’t care.” The quality of our “theory of behavior” determines the quantity of our influence.
This naive and simplistic view of human behavior saps influence. People can’t influence behavior they don’t understand. If someone believes other people’s behavior is fundamentally a function of their character deficits, that person tends to respond with shame, threats, bribes, or guilt. The CEO concluded he had to “treat them like children,” which meant he would micromanage the budget process. The effect of this theory of behavior was to perpetuate the very behavior the CEO despised.
There are six unique sources of influence that shape our choices. When someone uses all six, his/her influence increases exponentially. All leaders who effectively create organizational change do it the same way. They operate on a theory of behavior that recognizes the true complexity of human choices.
For example, upon asking a group of hospital executives why the chief of staff almost never washed his hands, the answers were ambivalent. One immediately responded the doctor had a “God complex.” Another said he might be lazy. Most nodded and concluded the mystery was solved. Based on their responses, the next question posed to them was: “What can we do to influence him to start washing his hands?” Because they operated on the assumption the doctor simply lacked personal motivation, their influence strategy rested primarily on marshaling sufficient threats and sanctions to get him off his lazy duff.
We live in a quick-fix world in which leaders look for silver bullets to solve complex problems. Unfortunately, most quick fixes don’t work because there is rarely a single cause for bad behavior. Let’s go back to our CEO and look more carefully at why seasoned executives would engage in petty politics during a high-stakes budget process. A more careful study of their behavior will reveal all six sources of influence could be involved.
1. Personal motivation: Executives feel morally obligated to their functions most of the year. They interact with, care about, and cooperate with their teams. It should be no surprise they feel intrinsically committed to the needs they experience most directly.
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 financial trade-offs and opportunities related to other areas.
3. Social motivation: We want to be seen as heroes by those who matter most to us, and writhe at the thought of facing others’ disapproval. Over the course of a year, these executives experience more praise and pressure about achievements in their functional areas than they do for any lofty enterprise-level concerns. A couple of nudges per year—or one at a specific time of the year—from the CEO about transcending their silo are a paltry assault on the tsunami of pressure they get from their functional employees.
4. Social ability: The executive team did little to enable one another to question, challenge, or contribute to teammates’ plans. They spent little time together in creative development. The skills and norms of the executive group involved negotiation and manipulation, not exploration and cooperation.
5. Structural motivation: Ninety percent of each executive’s incentive pay was tied to functional goals. As Upton Sinclair said once, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
6. Structural ability: To understand an executive’s behavior, look at his or her surroundings. What information and relationships are most enabled by the environment? These executives’ offices were co-located with their functional teams.
About 99 percent of their time and contact was with those in their own area of responsibility. If they happened to 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 mindshare focused them downward not upward.
Notice how much more seriously we can begin to think about influence when we acknowledge that all of the sources of influence align 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.
To use a river rafting metaphor, the first step to substantially increasing one’s influence is to stop paddling upstream. Until we get all six of the sources of influence flowing in the direction of change, we’ll continue to fail. Even more damaging, we’ll pin the failure on moral deficiencies in our people rather than on our own insufficient understanding of human behavior.
This article was republished with the permission of Chief Learning Officer magazine.