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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.

Story-telling on sustainability as urgent crises rise

I have written before about the Leaders Circles I host with my colleague Frank Kretzschmar, where the participants tell personal stories around a theme we select.

The topic of the last one I reported on was “Holding on to optimism – we can set an example”, and we certainly needed a dose of that optimism to reflect on our latest theme, “Now more than ever: sustainable living with heart and mind”.

Our invitation letter spelled out that as we continue adapting to the disruptive challenges of Covid, and as we struggle to handle other ongoing global issues such as inequality and climate change, we are more than ever obliged to look beyond tomorrow, beyond the next quarter.

Responsible leadership requires us to focus on sustainability, the introductory letter continued, suggesting this implies being fair to all key stakeholders.

“Short-term imperatives must be balanced with long-term aspirations, and we must figure out how to influence people to endure sacrifices today so we and those who come after us can prosper tomorrow,” we wrote, “All this in an increasingly unpredictable world, one where change keeps accelerating relentlessly.”

During our afternoon together several among us talked about feeling overwhelmed by global threats such as climate change, given both the scale and urgency of the issue and the refusal by far too many to adapt despite the fast-increasing severity of the disruptions it causes.

For even when crises like climate change or Covid or violent conflicts hit us, to whatever extent change is the only route through which sustainability can be achieved, too often the needed transformation is obstinately blocked.

Frank and I always search for appropriate quotes to display around the room that can inspire our storytellers, and among those we selected on this occasion was this one from nurse Terry Swearingen, a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize: “We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to.”

We also included Mahatma Gandhi’s observation that “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”, and a Native American proverb which reminded us that “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

The afternoon was far from filled with fatalistic dismay though, as we resonated with this wonderful assurance from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Like when one participant shared that “when something in this world moves you, that’s when you can follow your passion and make a difference, doing what you can in your sphere of influence.”

Among us were a couple of peace-builders, one of whom talked about the need to embrace the Ubuntu message of “I am because we are”, and this in a contemporary world where the compassionate “We” has increasingly given way to the selfish “I” of short-term personal gratification.

If we are to build sustainable societies, the other peace-builder contributed, we must work at resolving conflicts, overcome bureaucracy and mend broken institutions – however hard this is to do. Which leads me to another of our quotes, from Gaylord Nelson: “There is a great need for the introduction of new values in our society, where bigger is not necessarily better, where slower can be faster, and where less can be more.”

We heard about professionalising family businesses so they can survive multiple generations; about keeping our hearts open during these times of Covid, being fair and empathetic to both our employees and our customers; and about ensuring our organisations promote the kind of trustworthy cultures that allow them to operate effectively even in these days of physical separation.

As our minds and spirits have been stretched by what the pandemic has thrown at us we have had to force ourselves to think beyond day-to-day issues, we heard, to engage with each other more deeply and to find new ways of coping.

Being a Covid survivor myself, I mentioned that I almost missed out on being sustainable a few months ago. But happily I am now back in action, relating to our final quote, from Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”