Imagine it’s 1986 and you’re responsible for eradicating the Guinea worm, a parasite that afflicts 3.5 million people across 20 countries, has been around for over 2000 years, and for which there is no vaccine or medical treatment. The only way to stop the worm is to change a few specific behaviors - for everyone. What would you do?
If it’s difficult to change one person’s behavior, even your own, then changing millions seems impossible. Yet, in 2009, there were only 3000 cases of Guinea worm infestation - a reduction of 99.9%.
It turns out the approach used to drive that kind of change - to influence behavior at a large scale - has also been used to help 14,000 felons be successfully employed, to reduce AIDS in Thailand, to improve service quality, and even to lose weight.
And now I’m using it to help people make work more effective and more fulfilling.
6 sources of Influence
The approach comes from “Influencer” by Kerry Patterson, et al. This remarkable book combines the science of changing individual behavior, techniques for making those changes stick, and stories of global change movements involving thousands of individuals. (In doing so, it complements other great books on change like “The Willpower Instinct”, “Switch”, and “The Dragonfly Effect”.)
If you’re like me, your change efforts focus on raising awareness. Maybe on rewards and even penalties. But “Influencer” describes how to tap into 6 very different sources of influence to change specific “vital behaviors” (also known as “keystone habits”).
“Motivation and ability comprise the first two domains of our model. We further subdivide these two domains into personal, social, and structural sources. These three sources of influence reflect separate and highly developed literatures - psychology, social psychology, and organization theory. By exploring all three, we ensure that we draw our strategies from the known repertoire of influence techniques.”
They’re very clear that “verbal persuasion rarely works” despite being the most common tool we use. Instead, when it comes to altering behavior, you need to help others answer just two questions: “Will it be worth it?” and “Can I do it?” And, in answering them, you need to examine all three levels.
At work, we’re using these 6 sources as a checklist. As we try to help thousands of people work out loud (or print less, or use their own mobile phone, or contribute to any of the collective efficiency programs we have underway), we keep asking ourselves if we’re tapping into all 6 sources of influence.
☐ Personal motivation: If people don’t find the behavior appealing, how can we get them to try it (or at least have them experience the benefits vicariously) and connect it to other things they value? If someone likes doing it, how can we reinforce the behavior by recognizing their accomplishments and encouraging them to do more?
☐ Personal Ability: How can we make it simpler to start? And how can we provide people with opportunities to practice the behavior and attain achievable goals while giving them immediate feedback on ways to get even better?
☐ Social motivation: Who are influential leaders who can model the vital behavior? And can we identify relevant peer groups who are already behaving in the desired way?
☐ Social ability: How can we develop social ties - e.g., buddy systems, peer support groups, advocate programs - that can help an individual get better at the vital behavior?
☐ Structural motivation: What are extrinsic rewards we can put in place that are immediate, gratifying, and clearly tied to the vital behavior? (Only consider these rewards after intrinsic motivators and social support are in place.)
☐ Structural ability: How can we change the physical environment to make the vital behavior easier or to eliminate the things that pose a risk to that behavior?
The early results
In using the Influencer approach to help tens of thousands of people change how they work, it’s already helped us narrow our focus. Instead of trying to change a wide variety of activities, we’re focusing on working out loud as a specific vital behavior. And by using the Influencer checklist, we’ve uncovered gaps in our approach, expanded our thinking about how to change behavior, and come up with a wider array of more creative methods.
It’s tempting to think we already know what we’re doing. That our judgment is good enough. Or that we can cherry-pick a select few of the possible influence methods available to us. But “Influencer” repeatedly stresses that successful change agents overdetermine their success by using every influence tool available.
As Atul Gawande showed us in “Checklist Manifesto”, professionals as different as surgeons, pilots, and construction workers all benefit from checklists to make sure they take full advantage of methods already known to work.
Now, as aspiring Influencers, we have our own checklist.