How to increase your influence by understanding employees’ effort
- 5 Min Read
In order to increase your influence over others, start by suspending your usual, logical, approach to influence.
In any discussion of how to generate influence or persuasion, people tend to focus on how to get others to follow instructions. It is rare for anyone to take the opposite approach and predict what people are most likely to do, then use that anticipation as an advantage.
From a scientist’s point of view this is surprising, because what people are most likely to do in any given situation is fairly easy to predict. Across cultures, ages and contexts, evidence from behavioural science demonstrates that in most situations, most people will do just one thing: whichever option requires the least amount of mental or physical effort.
Assume everyone is lazy (unless they have a good reason not to be)
Have you ever found yourself returning to a coffee stand or store that you don’t like much simply because it is convenient? Or entering the highlighted options on a screen without reading the labels on those buttons? Have you been tempted to watch the movie instead of reading the book? If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of these examples, the good news is that you are perfectly normal. The tendency to take the easiest approach is a behavioral pattern is well documented and extremely common to humans.
In simple terms, if you assume that everyone is as lazy as possible unless given a very good reason not to be, you will be right more often than not.
What does this mean for influencing employee behaviour?
In order to increase your influence over others, start by suspending your usual, logical, approach to influence. Research on people’s behaviour in the workplace shows that our most common – even default – approaches to influencing employees is to firstly spell out what we want them to do, then secondly give them lots of reasons for doing what we ask.
In behaving this way, we make two key mistakes. The first is we assume the primary driver for complying with another’s request is logical reasoning, when in fact people’s behaviour is more predictably driven by emotions or the prospect of reward such as social approval. The second is that we make requests that require substantial effort from others. The higher the effort involved, the more attention a person pays to the reasons for compliance (which are often not strong in the first place). In contrast, if you make it easy enough, some people won’t even question why you are asking before they acquiesce to your request.
To take a simple example, consider a manager asking employees to complete a template, or a company asking customers to complete a survey. Typically, the designers of the form or survey are making a request for any piece of information that they think could be useful to them. This can represent significant effort from those who receive the request. Unless the penalty for non-compliance is high (which is not a very creative way to wield influence), then the response rate will typically be low. If, instead, that designer created the form with the objective of making it as easy as humanly possible to complete (defined in terms of the minimum number of seconds and calories of energy required), then he or she would see a significant increase in response rate.
Three steps to increase your influence by understanding effort:
1. Define the outcome you seek
Typically, people view influence as the act of getting other people to do what we ask them to do – as if there were a magic spell for controlling other people’s decisions! Instead, the first step in applying an understanding of effort to increase your influence is to begin with a clear picture of the situational or organizational outcome you seek. What is the outcome you need to achieve? The approach to influence I advocate in the book starts with defining the outcome you want, and then aiming to achieve that outcome – instead of simply aiming to control other people. It is a subtle but important difference.
2. Narrowly define what you need most from others to achieve that outcome
Next, critically examine what you need really need other people to do. The more you distill what you need from others down to a bare minimum of calories and seconds, the higher your chances of getting what you need. For example, if you require a manager to make a decision, ensure that the options are laid out in a manner that takes minimal time to read. If instead, your request requires the receiver to open multiple attachments or process complex information, you increase the likelihood that even a very genial manager puts it aside until her or she has time – and then never gets back to it.
3. Determine the context that minimizes effort
Finally, consider the time and location that will minimise the effort of performing the target behaviour. Under what circumstances will employees find this easiest to do? The more that the target behaviour flows easily from what an employee is already doing, the higher the likelihood it will be done.
Start with a low-risk example
It’s normal to feel sceptical when science suggests an approach that is different from our usual practices. The best way to develop your ability to influence using the principle of effort is to start small, and relatively low risk. Learning from your first attempt will help you get better results from your second attempt. When you are successful – or when you have questions – you can reach out to me for further support.
Dr. Amanda Nimon-Peters is Professor of Leadership at Hult International Business School. Dr. Amanda’s book Working with Influence: Nine Principles of Persuasion for Accelerating Your Career (Bloomsbury Business) is available for pre-order on Amazon. You can reach out to her via LinkedIn.