How Influential are you?

If you could wave a magic wand, what are the things you would really like to change in your business? Maybe you’d like to reduce sickness absence or raise performance by getting people to focus their efforts on the things that matter? Perhaps you’d like to improve the company’s ability to bring projects in on time or get people actually complying with the policies and procedures you’ve laid down?

How to increase your ability to influence these ‘profound, persistent and resistant’ problems was the focus of a presentation I attended earlier this week, given by Richard Pound of Grahame Robb Associates. He shared his Influencer™ model (a six part strategy for influencing change) with a group of HR professionals who turned out in force to hear how they could better tackle the issues that were getting in the way of progress and winding them up at work.

Richard pointed out that when you get to the nub of it, most of the challenges we face at work stem from people not behaving in the way we need them to. When we attempt to change that behaviour, our natural tendency is to try and do so via verbal means. So we tell people they will have to start doing things differently (or else ..) – or we try and demonstrate the logic of why they need to change.

This may have an impact in the short term, he says, but it’s a ‘quick fix’ that rarely leads to a long term, sustainable change in behaviour. Sooner or later, people revert to doing what they always did and after a while the business gives up, accepts the change it wants is never going to happen and finds ways to work around the issue instead.

He argues that the problem with our standard approach to trying to influence change is that we tend to jump straight to solutions without looking at the root of the problem. A more effective approach is to first focus on the results you want to achieve once the problem has gone away and set a measurable target. So you might, for example, decide that you want to reduce sickness absence by 25 percent by December 2012.

Once you’re clear about what you want to achieve, the next step is to identify the ‘vital behaviours’ that will help you reach that goal. The way to find these is to look for the ‘crucial moments’ when things start to go wrong. This could be a particular time, a place or a person – but if you can put your finger on the point when it all starts to go a bit pear-shaped, you’re a good way towards being able to identify the vital behaviour/s you need people to be demonstrating.

What’s also important is to understand why people do what they do. The answer lies in motivation and ability. We behave in a certain way because we want to (we get pleasure from it) and because we can.

Richard illustrated this point with the example of a company who had an on-going problem with short term sickness absence. They worked out that the vital behaviour was for employees to phone in sick personally and speak to their manager, instead of sending an email or a text or getting their partner to call in on their behalf.

The second vital behaviour was for the manager to have a ‘return to work’ conversation with the employee when they walked back in the door the following day or week. Two very simple measures that made it much more difficult for people to throw a convenient sickie and had a huge impact on absence levels in the business in question.

So once we know exactly what we want people to do differently, how do we influence them to make those vital changes? The six stage Influencer™ model is one that Richard says has proved successful in effecting major change in a wide variety of settings:

  1.  Make the Undesirable Desirable: The key is to link the new behaviours you want people to demonstrate with their existing values. So help them see the true implications of their actions and decisions. So if you want to get people taking health and safety more seriously, for example, you might show them a video that demonstrates the consequences of not following the correct procedures.
  2. Surpass your Limits: Many of the vital behaviours we ask people to adopt are actually far more challenging – either physically or emotionally – than we realise. Put simply, people often don’t know how to go about doing the things we are asking them to do. The key is to get people to practice the behaviours we want them to use in a safe environment. So in a health setting, nurses might be given the opportunity to practice challenging consultants and other staff about their hand washing practices so that they feel comfortable about doing it and are not afraid of the consequences.
  3. Harness Peer Pressure: No-one lives in a vacuum and bad behaviours or habits are generally influenced by other people who encourage or enable them. There are few motivators, for example, as powerful as the approval or disapproval of co-workers or friends. The key to influencing lasting change is to find strength rather than resistance in numbers and to get peer pressure working for rather than against you.
  4. Find Strength in Numbers: The ongoing support of managers and colleagues is a vital part of making changes in behaviour sustainable. The business needs to invest time in getting both formal and informal leaders involved in helping people do things differently. The role of informal leaders (those who do not necessarily have power but whom others respect and go to for help and information) is particularly important.
  5. Design Rewards and Demand Accountability: Very often, well intentioned performance management systems reward the wrong behaviour. Make sure you are incentivising the behaviour you want to encourage. Tackle the personal and social sources of motivation first – and use incentives third, as the icing on the cake to reinforce the message.
  6. Change the Environment: The environment we work in often has a huge impact on our behaviour, although we don’t always appreciate that. Change the physical world to make bad behaviours hard and good behaviours easy. Give people the tools and equipment they need to do the things you want them to do. A simple example might be not providing a rubbish bin beside every desk if you are trying to encourage people to recycle. If the bin is there, the temptation is to throw all rubbish in it. Take it away and people will have to walk to the nearest recycling point to dispose of their waste correctly.

 Richard made it clear that in his view Influencer™ is not a pick and mix model. If you are serious about effecting lasting change, you need to combine multiple sources of influence. The research behind the model shows that people who learn how to combine four to six sources of influence are up to 10 times more successful at producing substantial and sustainable change.

Information courtesy of Richard Pound, Grahame Robb Associates,

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