Are you an influencer?

Life would be so much easier and less stressful if we could influence others to do what is in their best interest by merely persuading them with logical, rational arguments.

But it often turns out to be really hard, often futile, so we just give up in frustration.

Efforts to influence others can be at the individual level, helping someone to do things like lose weight, give up smoking or drinking or do regular exercise.

It can be at the organisational level — where research shows that 70 percent of all change management initiatives fail to make a difference.

Or it can be in communities and up to national level, all with a view to modifying behaviour. So much effort is invested, too little impact is felt.

My life as a director, a consultant and a writer is all about influencing people, typically to help them work better together without wasting time, energy and emotions struggling with conflict, bureaucracy, silos or other impediments to high performance.

I’d like to think that at least sometimes my circle of influence is adequately significant. But I am possessed of no magic wand, and so however brilliant my change management operations may be, the outcomes with my ‘patients’ are still sometimes less than overwhelming.

Are my Business Daily columns influential? Do I merely raise awareness but stop short of influencing behaviour? Or are some of my readers actually stimulated to change in the way I am advocating?

As for my consultancies and directorships — more so when I am a board chairman — how do I influence behaviours?

All these thoughts swirled around in my mind as I read Influencers, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler — a group of change consultants themselves, who were curious to find out how others who had been of influence went about it.

One of my favourite examples reminded me of my recent hospital experience. A large medical centre’s service quality scores had been steadily decreasing, as patients and their families felt they weren’t being treated with care, dignity or respect.

So a team was formed to locate those among them who scored highly – the “positive deviants” – to see how they behaved in ways that resonated with their customers.

The good behaviours the team found among the high scorers were smiling, making eye contact, identifying yourself, letting people know what you are doing and why and ending every interaction by asking “Is there anything else that you need?”

A strategy to influence the behaviour of the other staff was initiated, resulting in the centre’s scores rising significantly.

Another example is the extraordinary work of microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunis. He found that by grouping women from a village in Bangladesh together and making them communally responsible for evolving viable business plans and for repaying loans made their success rate phenomenal.

I related to this case as some years ago my wife launched a microfinance company, through whose work she saw that the most valuable role it could play was to influence the value of reliability and the behaviours that supported it. It worked.

When it comes to altering behaviour, the authors found that you need to help others answer only two questions. First: Is it worth it? If not, why waste the effort?) And second: Am I able to do this thing? (If not, why even try? Then, you must replace judgment with empathy, and lectures with questions.

The moment you stop trying to impose your agenda on others you eliminate the fight for control.

Storytelling is a powerful way of influencing, they also reveal, relating personal experiences, with all their challenges and setbacks, but where the goal was achieved.

Whose stories? Those of opinion leaders in the group, to whom others listen. For it isn’t the mere merit of an idea that predicts its adoption rate.

Rather, whether opinion leaders embraced and promoted it.

Then, insist on immediate feedback against clear standards, we are advised. Break tasks into discrete actions, set goals for each, practice within a low-risk environment, and build in recovery strategies, while offering real-time coaching.

There’s so much more in this book I would like to share, but I must go to my concluding question: are you skilled at influencing others? Or are you too pushy, too instructive, or otherwise insufficiently smart? Look out for high influencers, and see what to learn from them.

Balancing the State and people power

Eight years ago I wrote a column about Why Nations Fail, the book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and more recently I acquired the subsequent one by these two economics professors, The Narrow Corridor.

It’s another global analysis of how liberty and wellbeing flourish in some states but degenerate to authoritarianism or anarchy in others.

New opportunities and threats emerge, as some successful societies continue to thrive while others falter.

In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson concluded that nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions, and fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.

Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are much more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few.

Inclusive economic institutions are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions, which distribute political power widely so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy.

Conversely, extractive political institutions that concentrate power in the hands of a few reinforce extractive economic institutions to hold on to power.

What are they telling us now, in The Narrow Corridor? In most places and at most times, the strong have dominated the weak, and human freedom has been suppressed – either by force or merely through customs and norms.

States have either been too weak to protect individuals from these threats or they have been too strong for people to protect themselves from despotism. Liberty emerges only when a delicate balance is struck between the state and society.

Which nations are more likely to succeed and to fail today? Which countries are becoming more inclusive in their economics and politics, and which ones will be leaving the narrow corridor of balanced liberty that requires adequate but not excessive state power?

With Covid having intensified inequality between rich and poor, between the digital and the non-digital, is the corridor narrowing further – including in countries like America?

And with ones like Hungary, India, Turkey and the Philippines having shifted to more autocratic styles, we have been confronted with the reality that political liberty is not such a steady or durable phenomenon.

Is Kenya within or beyond the narrow corridor? And either way, where are our ever-manoeuvring politicians taking us? Are we still just passive citizens waiting for our tribal princes to tell us for whom to vote?

Or will we at last select those who best understand what lies within the narrow corridor and how to have us inhabit this privileged space?

If America itself is finding it hard, with Republicans burying their heads in the Trumpian sands as they deny truth and sneer at science, and with us facing our elections in a year’s time, should this be cause for gloom and doom?

During our years since independence it could be argued that we have done better than many other countries – and not just in Africa – at surviving within the narrow corridor, balancing the power of the state and that of the people.

We should feel good about our evolution into multi-party politics and the devolution of power to the counties, about our reasonable freedom of speech and our relatively open economy.

Could we have done better? Of course. Will we? That’s a hard one. We have among us everything from Utopian optimists to self-flagellating pessimists.

What’s for sure is that, as everywhere, the struggle between state and society will continue. But it is not further constitutional tweaks, with yet more laws and regulations that will take us closer into the desired corridor or keep us there.

And it is not more duplication and fragmentation of state institutions.

No. It is all to do with values and how these are reflected in behaviour. How are we encouraging good behaviour, that promotes integrity and cohesion? And how are we penalising bad behaviour that prevents it?

We citizens must take seriously our responsibility for influencing the leaders of state institutions in ways that can see our vision of shared prosperity be actualised.

With all the talent and energy that exists in Kenya, surely this is doable.

How to manage change during transition period

I have written about change quite often in this column, and a few weeks ago I referred briefly to my own change anxiety in the context of my stay in hospital while dealing with Covid.

There, during my two-month incarceration, I was moved several times: from this ward to that ward, and then first to one room and later another prior to my eventual release. Each transition provoked its own anxieties, however ill-founded some were.

I was reminded of my transition stress as I came across the book Managing Transitions – Making the Most of Change by William Bridges, a prominent consultant who pointed out that much of what gets us agitated is not the actual difference between the old and the new situations but the disruptive transition from one to the other.

Each time I dreaded the prospects of being wheelchaired to my new abode, someone trailing behind me with the oxygen cylinder to which I was hooked up, and someone packing my belongings and then unpacking them in an unfamiliar setting – on one occasion at high speed and late in the evening.

All this required great mental and emotional strength on my part to keep adequately calm and optimistic about both the journey and the destination.

One transition led me to a distinctly less conducive environment, justifying my prior concern; while the upgrade to my first private room delivered significant advantages, as did the freedom from isolation – allowing me to receive visitors. But even this did not take away from the discomforts of transition.

My exit from the confines of the hospital to a care home and then finally back to my own home exposed me to yet more transition experiences, yet more reasons to be anxious about moves from one environment to the next, where at each stage the availability of carers would be diminished.

The good news is that all this made me a transition expert in just three months!

Bridges describes the sequence of progressing from the first stage of “ending” the previous setting, when we feel a sense of loss, accompanied by first denial, then anger and frustration, as we come to terms with the need to let go of the familiar; to the “neutral” stage, where negative feelings diminish; to the “new beginning”, with its mix of gains and fresh challenges.

It’s good to seek support when facing change, advises Bridges, and indeed from my experience I saw that support should be offered pro-actively and pre-emptively – having understood where and why people are anxious. How was it for this hospital nomad?

Sometimes I was reassured and comforted by the doctors and nurses, but on one occasion I actually felt like an Internally Displaced Person. Important too is to be straightforward with ourselves about where the new situation will indeed leave us less well off, helping us to accept the inevitable gracefully, as it’s as good as it gets.

Managing expectations is the name of this game.

The neutral zone is the most challenging, I read, because we can’t go back to the old state and we haven’t yet mastered the new one. Other messages from Bridges are that it is easier to let go of the past if we take lessons from what is ending and what we must let go of.

And that if possible we should try and take some familiar aspects into and beyond the transition.

More so in this volatile day and age we are constantly challenged to transition beyond our comfort zones: a new boss or structure or job; a new phone or laptop, or a new version of an operating system or App or ERP, and so many other changes… not to mention Covid, which has multiplied the ways in which we have had to adapt – to remote working, to not shaking hands and in many other ways.

Some of us find it all so hard to handle, while others manufacture the strength to expand their comfort zones as they travel through their transitions and into their new scenarios.

If those new scenarios leave us worse off, make us feel like an IDP, then we must find yet more strengths – beyond those required for the journey through transition – so we can plan for our best possible future with an invigorated sense of purpose.