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Changing Minds: The Science of Influence

Whether we are in leadership, sales, marketing, operations, support, or any other role that involves dealing with other people, we spend most of our time trying to influence the behaviors of others. Even as young children, we learn how to influence people through various techniques one-on-one.

Life is the dance of influence.

There are three ways to change people’s behaviors:

  1. Force.
    Force works if you are in a position of authority over someone and you are in a situation where flash decisions need to be made immediately. For example, in the military, where command and control environments are necessary for teams to achieve success and save lives.

    Force, however, is difficult to maintain as your tactic of choice in a business environment. Having to force people to behave in a way that you want should be seen as a failure in leadership. It generally means that the leaders of the organization are too lazy to invest the time into figuring out how to inspire the right behaviors.

    Force undermines the core Self Determination Theory tenet of autonomy. People need to feel that they are in control and that their decisions are their own. When you force behaviors through threats and commands, they harbor contempt and act out of spite. They do not do their best, nor are they ever really committed to the results.
  2. Coercion.
    Coercion is a short-term way to impact someone’s behavior, but it will always breaks down over time. Coercion is a little more thoughtful than force as it takes some thought and effort. It is usually well intended, but the side effects are rarely considered and can be detrimental.

    In the best cases, coercion in the business environment manifests itself as incentives, promotions, commissions, loyalty programs, reward programs, etc. These can add some value with large groups and can be useful for businesses if applied carefully and thoughtfully. In the worst cases, it is manifested as bribes, outright lies, propaganda, smear tactics, or manipulative marketing.

    Coercion can help you achieve short-term successes and improvements, but it generally has to be sustained and rarely leads to a long-term behavior change. Most people will generally recognize the coercion over time and it tends to undermine the Self Determination Theory tenet of autonomy as well.
  3. Inspiration.
    Inspiration is the only way to create a useful behavior change. It is the most difficult of the three mechanisms to achieve, because it requires a lot of work. But, it is also the most valuable because it has a lasting effect. Inspired people can accomplish amazing things. Inspired employees are your brand ambassadors and will work to help you improve your product or service. Inspired customers become brand advocates and spread the word about your organization to their networks.

    The only way to inspire people, in the context of the influence that you are trying to create, is to work to fulfill all three tenets of the Self Determination Theory. That means that you have to determine how to communicate the value of the decision in a way that provides choice and autonomy, and in a way that is most related to your customer.

    The best leaders in the world understand this innately. They work to build competence, relatedness and autonomy into each and every interaction with their customers, employees and vendors.

As businesses, we should strive to inspire our customers at every turn. Inspiration is a lot of work and involves a true commitment to building 100 year relationships, but every investment you make toward building inspired customers and employees will pay off in spades.

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